Mental illness and faith

Today I came across a blog that made me sad.

Being in contact with many women like me who have bipolar disorder, there isn’t much that can shock me anymore.  Suicide attempts, psychotic episodes, cries for help in the depths of depression – our online community shares the ups and downs of life with a mental illness.

Yet, this blog – titled “Is there a link between religion and mental illness?”– was the saddest thing I have read yet.

In it, the author used a range of handpicked statistics to argue that there is a correlation between religion – and in particular Christianity – and mental illness.

What followed was a flood of responses on Twitter – both attacking and supporting the author. Knowing I am a Christian, one of my Twitter followers asked me to comment.

I never want to attack another author for their opinion, but what I will say in response is this:

She is partially right.

Religion, including Christianity, has sometimes got it wrong in regards to mental illness. It is the hidden disability in many of our churches. We have wheelchair friendly ramps and toilets, but often don’t know how to reach out to those with a mental illness.

Like in many other organisations, people in churches may feel embarrassed and like they have to hide their struggle with mental illness from others.  While we feel comfortable requesting prayer for other forms of illness, it is sometimes embarrassing to let others know we are struggling with depression, anxiety, hearing voices or mania.

But at the core of Christianity is Jesus.

A man who ignored social norms and reached out to those who were stigmatised.  In his day, they were people with Leprosy, tax collectors and women.

Jesus’ message was in direct contrast to what religious leaders of the day were teaching.  It was not a message of judgement – it was one of forgiveness, grace and hope.  His followers set up the first hospitals and soup kitchens for the poor and outcast – actions which caught the attention of all around them. Of the  25 biggest charities in Australia today, 23 are Christian organisations.

Some, like this author, argue that feeling constantly feeling guilty for ‘sinning’ is causing people to become – or stay – mentally unwell.  I admit that I have struggled with feelings of guilt after doing the wrong thing.  I wouldn’t be human if I hadn’t. But knowing that I am loved anyway and forgiven – the slate wiped clean – gives me freedom.

When I was at my lowest point, sitting alone in the high-dependency unit of a public hospital psychiatric ward, my faith was the only thing that sustained me.  Everything else: my career, my health, my appearance and even my sanity, had fallen away.  To get through this time, I clung to God’s promise that He had a plan for my life, that He would give me hope and a future.  It was my faith that enabled me to forgive others for what had been done for me – rather than becoming angry and bitter.

My intention here isn’t to push my faith onto anyone else.

It’s simply to encourage those who believe some mental illness is the result of guilt caused by Christianity to go beyond the Church and all its failings.

Instead of encouraging people to abandon their faith, find out more about the person at the core of Christianity.  And join me in challenging churches to model his behavior – and become a place of acceptance and refuge for those of us who struggle with mental illness.

Mariska xx

Mariska is the founder of Bipolar Mums and has a passion for speaking about the hidden disability in Australian churches: mental illness.  She inspires churches to reach out to and support those in their community who are struggling with a mental illness.