One of my faithful readers sent me some thoughtful questions. First —
How does one differentiate between experiencing emotional turmoil in their life, and experiencing mental health issues that may require additional aid? (Medicine, Therapy, etc)
This points to a very difficult and sometimes controversial distinction in mental health care.
Some people are sad by virtue of their circumstances. Time, while it may not remove the sadness, helps to heal. Others, however, have chronic depression that can incapacitate them for weeks, months, even years at a time.
Some become anxious in social situations. With the help of proper relaxation techniques, they can face their fears and persist. Others have acute panic attacks that are often confused with heart conditions.
Some persons are moody, experiencing highs and lows that seem beyond what is normal. Others have debilitating lows and dangerous highs.
How can we determine who is in emotional turmoil and who has a mental illness? It’s not easy and without professional credentials, we shouldn’t even attempt it. Diagnostic criteria is based on an intricate pattern of behavior, medical history, and psychiatric observation. It is not something you can determine in a 10-question survey.
How can I better approach the climate of mental health issues in a God honoring way?
This is such a great question! One of the best things about this question is that it recognizes that mental illness is not something that is to be blamed on anyone. It can be a terrible condition with wicked consequences. But it can also be a condition that, with compassionate care, can give glory to God.
This question brings to my mind the response of Jesus when they bring to him a man born blind:
As [Jesus] went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.” (John 9.1-3)
The most God-honoring approach to those with mental illness is to see them as the beautiful children of God they were created to be. Don’t focus on the flaws of their diseased minds anymore than you would a person with diabetes. God calls those of us with troubled minds into ministry and mission that gives glory to Christ. We need the faith fellowship to embrace us and shepherd us through the distinct forms of service that will do this.
What would your advice be in order to better shine the light of Christ to people who suffer in a way I may not be able to completely understand?
I just went to a mental health ministry conference and the speaker drew us to a compelling text:
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5.43-48)
You may not think of someone with a mental illness as your enemy. But, then again, you may not have any friends who are so afflicted. Our human tendency is to favor our friends, people who are like us and who we like. When we consider mental illness in the abstract, we can begin to fall prey to erroneous stereotypes that expand unwarranted stigma. The media projects images of the violence of madmen and we can internalize these. When we encounter a person in public behaving in a way we don’t fully understand, it is natural to be afraid.
These are the very ones we are to love. The woman with chronic depression who hasn’t showered for weeks. The man with schizophrenia talking back to voices you can’t hear. The teen with bipolar intensely telling you about grand schemes to save the world.
The best way I know to shine the light of Christ toward such persons is to befriend them. When you do, God will be glorified. And who knows, their symptoms might even become more manageable.