Mental illness and spirituality…

I had a good chat with our friend Kathryn tonight about spirituality and mental health problems.

Kathryn has been studying with ICC in Glasgow and has a passion for working with people who have problems with mental illness. To this end, with her husband Bobby she has been running a furniture recycling/reallocating project- in her spare time that is, as well as her day job!

She also has this idea for a kind of friendship group where people who have mental health problems (and lets face it, this is many of us at some point in our lives.) This has formed part of her studies, and tonight was a chance for us to talk through some of this stuff- which was great, not just because it was good to see Kathryn again, but also because this subject kind of beats in my heart.

The bias that I feel Jesus had towards the poor and broken, and the hope that we feel for a new way of being- categorised by grace, and radical inclusion, according to the rules of the New Kingdom- these things are all in there for me.

As part of her project, Kathryn asked me to consider some questions- which I found surprisingly hard to answer given that this is an area of constant reflection. In particular she was interested in how church might provide help and assistance to people experiencing mental ill health.

Here are some of the things that I was chewing on-

I want to suggest that all of us are potential sufferers of mental ill health- including many people within church. We too easily start with an ‘I’m OK, you are not OK’ way of thinking- which leads us to believe that we have the answers to other people’s problems. Perhaps in part, we might actually be part of the cause!

We often fail to acknowledge MH difficulties amongst people within church- the stigma is as strong, if not stronger, against mental ill health within church as without- because we add assumptions about spiritual weakness to all the other negative assessments.

Another assumption we tend to make is that our job as Christians is primarily to bring people inside the club by making them realise that they are outside. Our job then easily becomes to invite people into our buildings, and hope they will then become like us. The support available within church for people who have MH problems has often been far from perfect, and very poorly integrated with other community resources.

Christian groups/churches seeking to support and provide care for people experiencing mental ill health easily fall into lots of traps. I would include some of these-
The evangelical trap- Our real (covert) motivation is to convert. Most folk see this coming and run a mile. Some may indeed convert- repeatedly. The difficulty is that conversion does not make the illness go away, and we may find ourselves being dishonest and conditional in the way we offer love and support.
The therapy trap- Christians tend to do bad therapy. Bad therapy often does more damage. It is easy to inadvertently be the ‘expert’ and then let people down when we fail to deliver.
The dependency trap- Sustaining relationships with people who have experienced real damage can be extremely hard. If people find something that is helpful and supportive, it can easily become a full stop. The dependency that begins can be an impossible burden for those running groups also, leading to broken promises and further alienation and rejection.

My strong feeling is that Christians ought to be attracted to failure, rather than being seduced by success.  I also believe that Jesus calls us to the poor in spirit.

But I am not sure that he calls us to ‘rescue’ people- rather that he asks us to practice a form of radical inclusion.

I think too that all streams of ‘therapy’ have a thing at the heart of them- for CBT it is about therapeutic allegiance, for person centred counselling it is ‘unconditional positive regard’ and for psychoanalysis it is ‘transferance’. All these seem to me to carry something of Jesus about then- they are related to LOVE. They are in some senses a Christian heresy.

I wonder whether we might yet work out how better to understand the relationship between Spirituality and mental health problems? Is this something that Emerging Church might yet do better?

To accept that our fallability is not a sign of individual weakness, or spiritual corruption, or demonisation. It is just part of who we are.

Part of what it is to be human. Even extra-human.

9 thoughts on “Mental illness and spirituality…

  1. mmmh chewables indeed….
    three areas of thought
    1. we cannot ignore that christ did practice a form of ‘inclusion’ but at the same time we cannot ignore the fact that anyone that came to him was healed. I know this has been very fairly hijacked by the evangelicals, but I dont think its something the ’emerging’ church can do better. In fact the church any church cant do this… it has to be a coming allongside individually. To cretae a functioning Xtian community we have to become functioning Xtians individually.
    2. Therapy in whatever flavour, has to do with specific professional disciplines with particular foundational concepts, and none have spirituality within their radar. It may be constructed as values clarification but when they venture out of their professional discipline and enter into spiritual areas, they enter in as amateurs, not experts. eventually the techniques, although useful in understanding the ‘human’ condition, divert and we Xtians have to walk through another door in being able to help those that are broken.
    at this point therapy and xtianity are apples and oranges. I do agree however that xtians can do more harm than good. Especially when they confuse situational melancholia, personality disorders and MH, but this where we do have access to the behavioral modification strategies of God.
    3. Two interconnected points here… the natural and the spiritual. There is more and more mounting evidence that diet and specifically deficiencies in diet are related to many of the dis-eases of the west. The recovery community is looking more and more at the concept of diagnosis and personally am looking into the research on diet. I have apersonal distrust of the pharma industry based as it on assumptions made in the 50’s that have not yet been re-examined, especially from non western concepts of MH. In the spiritual my primary assumption is that evil exists and that both angelic and demonic realms exist, and in some cases in the ‘west’ this is palpably present, but here we exit mental health, and in these cases you have to witness it first hand to see what it can do to a human. Especially those that have allowed it to function in their spiritual lives.
    but this where, for me, songs like this come into play…

    After the 1st 2nd 3rd, 4th and 5th waves of psychology there is a new method on its way… reorganizing brain wave patterns by direct intervention externally… mmmh am curious to see how the British Associations will take to this..

  2. Hey Ali… wow- great come back!

    Firstly good point about healing. I think this is an issue that church has dealt with very badly though- in particular in relation to MH issues.

    There are some good models out there where prayer for healing and renewal is offered and received with grace and hope…

    Secondly- church. Get over the word my friend. YOU are church, the action of individual Christians who collaborate with the Spirit- this too is church. There is also an organisational level of church, but this is a whole different bag of cats!

    Your point about no Therapy having spirituality on the radar is not true. Jung would be one major exception from the theorists, and even modern CBT would encourage people to look at problem solving/coping strategies that include spiritual resources.

    But there is indeed a great suspicion of Christians, particularly anything that has the whiff of fundementalism.

    The point is, what might be helpful to people? And what is the engine at the core of good therapy that enables the change process? I argue that no matter what the science calls it- it is more to do with simple human things called grace and acceptance of one person to another.

    I would agree with you about the drug companies, but am a firm skeptic about the centrality of vitamins/minerals as a cause of our malaise, although happy to concede that this is in the mix.

    Demonology and MH have a particularly unpleasant connection for me I am afraid and I do not think this is a good direction to go in.

    Finally (!) your point about brain imaging and work around the physiology of the brain. Our understanding continues to develop, but the simple fact is that we still know next to nothing about how the brain operates- check out this programme from yesterday for example-

    I strongly feel that looking to medical-biological-mechanical explainations of complex human emotions and dysfunction will never give the full picture. Emotions are chemical, but then so are interactions, and so are hopes and fears. What gives them meaning could be regarded as SPIRITUALITY.



  3. Chris, and Ali, I just about nodded my head off as I was reading the original blog post and Ali’s reply.
    I love what you said, Chris, about how ‘Christians should be attracted to failure rather than seduced by success.’ I love it. I have been banging that particular drum for so long – I think of that beautiful verse from Corinthians, “my grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” and how absolutely, wonderfully, gracefully beautiful that is. Many others inside and outside the church have not understood why I feel such an attraction to brokenness – they see it as me looking for negatives, focusing on doom and gloom, and especially, failing to ‘claim the victory that is mine in Christ’. I see it so very differently. And I love that you seem to see it too.
    In a world of broken, hurting people we must be prepared to admit to our own brokenness or we can never reach them, never help them, never get alongside them. They will only ever continue to see it as a them and us situation. There can be beauty in brokenness.
    I could write more but this is something I feel so passionately about that I’d struggle to make any sense – I need the dispassion of my work Mac, a story plan and a looming deadline to write, sometimes! And it’s probably a topic best talked about anyway. But thank you for this post and for your blog generally which is wonderful. Aileen

  4. I am not a deep thinker, nor am I good with words, but a big bit of me is shouting “Amen!” to Aileen’s comments re brokenness

  5. hahaha I nod off to sleep far too often…. due in part to the effects of christianity and being broke and broken…
    Chris there’s a therapy on its way that has nothing to do with brain imaging but on brain wave normalisation using light portable units. The data on supplementation is new and its shocking in its verifiable claims, REALLY its shocking. So much so that there is a movement among some doctors for a national campaign.
    but this is the natural…. good grief its grace thats kept me alive this far through the fullness and goodness of GOD. Yes and the grace of you two and others when I was completely broken by illness, medication and the Church. At the minute, through grace am planning not to go back to any of it.

  6. Pingback: Weakness… « this fragile tent

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