Where is God in Mental Illness?
Bruce G. Epperly
Both mental health and mental illness are many-faceted and elusive in nature. No one definition of mental health or illness fits all people or settings. Healthy behavior in one cultural setting may appear aberrant in another. Further, health and illness are processes and not static states. There is a temptation to define people solely in terms of illness language – “he has cancer,” “she is schizophrenic,” “he is bi-polar,” “she is obsessive compulsive.” This objectifies people and places limits on what they can achieve, freezing them as sick in contrast to those of us who are temporarily well. Process theology asserts that within limitation and concreteness, possibilities emerge. This applies to all life conditions, including persons diagnosed with mental illnesses. In the many-facetedness of life, many persons diagnosed with serious mental health issues are among the most compassionate and creative members of the human race.
The USA Surgeon General’s Office defines mental illness as “the term that refers collectively to all diagnosable mental disorders. Mental disorders are health conditions that are characterized by alterations in thinking, mood, or behavior (or some combination thereof) associated with distress and/or impaired functioning.”
As a university chaplain in the 1990’s, I recall a student coming to me, experiencing guilt about how he felt. He found it impossible to feel happy; he didn’t want to get out of bed; and couldn’t even fully enjoy a party or a sunset. “What’s wrong with me?” he asked. “I feel sad, when I should feel grateful. I thought Christians were supposed to be joyful, but I feel depressed every day. I have no zest or joy in life.” After a long conversation, it occurred to me that he might be experiencing clinical depression. I gave him referrals to local psychiatrists who could diagnose his condition and prescribe appropriate medication, if necessary. He came back, reporting the diagnosis I suspected. In the month ahead, the psychiatrist dealt with a chemically-based illness, while I continued to meet him to talk about his spiritual life and relationship with God.
He is not unusual in experiencing guilt or a sense of being weak because he couldn’t overcome feelings of depression. I recall another parishioner coming to me because she felt that she should be able to solve her mental health issues by an act of will. “I’m a Christian: shouldn’t my faith cure me of my anxiety? If I only had more faith, I would be calm and wouldn’t need medication.” I found it ironic that in the context of pastoral conversations, I was the one who encouraged her to take her medicine and reminded her that medication as well as meditation is good for our health, or as my colleague Dr. Dale Matthews says, “Prayer and Prozac.”
As I ponder the relationship between spirituality and mental illness, I would like to make a few brief assertions, in part, to counter popular understandings of God’s relationship to sickness, including mental illness:
· God seeks abundant life for all people, including people diagnosed with mental illness.
· God does not cause mental illness either to punish or teach, or as a working out of God’s will in the world.
· Health and illness are caused by many factors. Still, God is present in the many factors of life as a non-coercive force for health and wholeness.
· Treatment of mental illness may involve many modalities, including pharmaceutical, dietary, complementary medicine (acupuncture, reiki healing touch), counseling, and spiritual practices.
· God is present within the lives of persons diagnosed with mental illnesses, non-coercively presenting them with healthy possibilities – typically at an unconscious level – appropriate to their condition.
· God is present in medical and pharmaceutical treatments as well spiritual practices.
In the context of mental illness, religious institutions have the responsibility of welcoming and affirming persons of all health conditions. Hospitality, not exclusion, is the heart of authentic spirituality. Further, religious institutions can provide personal support related to transportation, financial issues, community resources, and companionship. In the spirit of Jesus, religious institutions are places of compassion and healing, and healing comes with open-hearted acceptance. God does not abandon us at any stage of life or mental health condition. God experiences our distress from the inside and seeks to find ways we can find support and experience equanimity despite our mental health condition. God takes our pain upon Godself and seeks to transform our pain into joy and solidarity with the larger community.
And to all of this I must add one more point. The God in whom we Whiteheadians believe meets people where they are, not where they are not, and beckons them into kinds of wholeness pertinent to their genetic makeup, psychological dispositions, and life experiences. No, God does not send mental illness. But people with mental illnesses, however understood, may find God within, not apart from that illness, and the illness itself can be, in its own way, a blessing. It reminds other people that there are many psychological worlds in which we can dwell, each with its wisdom, and there can be something quite “wise” in being out of sync with the allegedly “normal” world. That world is often defined by social convention, some of which is quite destructive. It is defined by an economic system which prioritizes having money over being wise, being successful over being kind, wielding power over being vulnerable. Some forms of mental illness will have wisdom of their own, functioning as critiques of this system, even as they can be painful. In this sense, those who suffer from mental illness can be prophets of their own, shamans for a shallow age, sages for a society who has flattened reality into one and only one dimension: commodities for purchase and bodies to be objectified.
Jesus himself may or may not have been mentally ill, but he was certainly maladjusted to a world of appearance, affluence, and achievement. He cried when he shouldn’t have; he walked into a cross when others walked away from crosses.
He heard a calling from his Abba that would be defined today as “crazy.” In the house of consciousness there are many rooms. The mentally ill, however defined, have a kind of sanity of their own, from whom all can learn.
Some may still need prozac. But they also need our humility, for they may also travel paths that enter the divine forest of love in ways that surpass our understanding, but by which we, too, can be guided.