Mental health. If you pay any attention to the news and social media, you have seen public interest in mental health increase in recent years. There has been much talk of “de-stigmatizing” mental illness.
Stigma is a fancy sounding and rather abstract word. I prefer the phrase “shame and blame.” For this article, I’ll create a neologism (I had to look that up) for fun: “Shame ‘n Blame.” It captures the essence of stigma better than the word itself.
Shame ‘n Blame exists in both secular and sacred circles. However, when I searched “mental health in the church” and scanned through the first half-a-dozen articles that came up in my browser, I found some cross-denominational agreement that the church has its own forms of mental health stigma.
For example, various symptoms of mental health disorders have at times been viewed as indicative of sin and/or lack of faith. In turn, it has not been unheard of for these ideas to be communicated in terms both shaming and blaming. This has helped make discussion of mental health in church — as the young people say — awkward.
Let’s try to reduce this awkwardness by considering how physical and mental health have similarities… and differences.
My brother recently preached on mental health. As he pointed out, various mental health conditions have biological and genetic origins, just like diabetes or pneumonia. Therefore, we ought to treat our brothers and sisters in Christ with the same compassion we offer those suffering from physical ailments. Nice one, Bro!
We don’t tend to feel uneasy about physical health problems. (In my experience, people’s physical ailments can be quite a popular topic of chit-chat at church.) However, that was not always the case. In John Chapter 9 the disciples asked Jesus if a man’s blindness was a matter of his sin, or the sin of his parents. Jesus replied, “Neither.”
What Jesus did next spoke more loudly than words. He healed the man… in a particularly kind and tender fashion. He could have healed with a word, but instead he made mud with his own saliva and touched the man’s eyes with it. Such humble and intimate actions no doubt communicated far more than any theological debate ever could.
You see, mental health is not entirely like cancer, multiple sclerosis, or for that matter, blindness. Mental health is intensely *relational* in both its origins and maintenance. Many mental health problems are formed as much by the quality of relationship experiences as by DNA and the workings of various bits of the brain and nervous system. Shame ‘n Blame (and other ways we treat each other unkindly) are the soil in which mental health problems grow, as well as the fuel which keeps them going strong.
Promoting good mental health and healing mental health wounds and dysfunction *requires* humble, compassionate and supportive relationships. As a mental health professional for many years, I can testify to this. Medication and counselling can be quite ineffective when a person is floating in a sea of shame and blame.
Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Gal. 5:22-23) are not just fruits of the Spirit. They are also medicine for mental health. Very effective medicine.
Let us offer this medicine to each other.
Chris Lindsay, M.Ed., RSW