The Other Side of the Coin: Mental Health

Two weeks ago, we started with a sermon series called Two Sides of the Coin. I was sick the week before so the actual first sermon on authority was published to my blog and the Adnah Facebook page. The sermon last week, on sincere doubt, talked about the need to offer grace to those who, like the Apostle Thomas, have and struggle with sincere doubts. We also talked about how doubt could be an integral part of learning to trust, how doubt was not an impediment to belief but a steppingstone. This week we deal with a subject that holds great personal value to me, the subject of mental health and the church.

Mental health has had a rocky history in relation to the church. Those who dealt with mental illnesses have been and, in many cases, continue to be looked down upon by certain theologies and the people who espouse them. In a 2007 study, Stanford University recruited Christians who were involved in online mental illness discussion groups. They gave these Christians an anonymous web survey and the participants answered a series of questions about their interactions with churches around mental health issues. Most of the participants reported positive interactions with the church. However, around one-third said the church had viewed their mental illness as “a result of personal sin;” another third reported the church “suggest[ed] that [they or their] loved one did not really have a mental illness,” despite being diagnosed by a mental health professional. Part of the people said the negative church interactions weakened their faith or the reason they moved away from involvement in their faith communities.[1]

In the passage we read, it seems at first glance we aren’t talking about mental illness. To many, the passage we read is a clear case of demon possession. I mean, why else would Jesus be having a conversation with and casting out a demon in the passage? Why else would the pigs have killed themselves in the passage? Why else would a man who had been raving amongst the cave like tombs of the area suddenly be sitting in his right mind and acting like a ‘normal’ person? Of course, the passage we read from Mark was written sometime toward the end of the first century, right after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. The idea of mental illness as we know and understand it today wouldn’t have been considered. In fact, even now, a hundred and fifty years from the dawn of modern psychology, we struggle with defining mental illness when we see it. And even when we see it, we are likely to act as though it’s some kind of virus, like you’ll catch it if you stay around someone who struggles with it.

Staying with our two sides of the coin idea, there are usually two ways people see this passage. One is a very literal reading that sees a young man running through the caves and tombs of a Gentile people. So many things are going on here beneath the surface. This whole situation, from a Jewish perspective is unclean. The Gentile region Jesus and his disciples are in is unclean, as are the tombs where this is happening and the spirits that possess the man. Not only is this man ‘possessed’ but complete possessed. The idea of a legion was meant to imply complete control over the situation as a legion referenced a group of six thousand Roman troops. Jesus commands the demon reveal itself and then casts it out. The demons are so vile that even the unclean pigs Jesus sent them into could not stand them and ran off a cliff trying to get away from them. For many this is a simple story of a demon possessed man who was released from his possession by Jesus.

But what if there was more to it? What if there is another way to see this?

In recent years, scholars, particularly those with both theological and mental health training, have begun to see these stories as potential illustrations of mental health issues in the ancient world. As I said, the modern conception of mental illness is just that, modern and rather young in comparison to civilization itself. Many have come to see these episodes of demon possession and casting out as illustrations of mental health care. They see Jesus as proto-psychologist to those suffering with mental health issues. Consider the story. The Gerasene man is living among the tombs. In the ancient world, he would have been driven there to protect the other villagers from his ailment, not unlike people driven to homelessness by families who don’t understand or can’t get the help they need. His behavior is erratic—howling or screaming, hurting himself. This too is the behavior those unable to cope with and not understanding their mental illness. In fact, several commentators have seen this man not as a demoniac but as someone suffering with schizophrenia or perhaps a dissociative disorder. The approach Jesus takes would be perfect from a psychological standpoint. He speaks to the man within the framework of his world. The man, and all his village, believe he is possessed. He speaks to Jesus as though possessed. Jesus responds the way a good therapist would, speaking to the man as though he is possessed and giving the man the relief of hearing someone call the ‘demon’ out of him. Once, the Gerasene man is heard and feels safe, he can deal with his trauma, the trauma that led him to such a painful existence, and we find him at the end of the story sitting clothed and in his ‘right mind’.

I tried to find something to speak to the idea of demons in United Methodist theology. The word doesn’t exist in our Book of Discipline. There is a brief mention of ‘demonic forces’ but that is in references to ‘societies and systems” in need of transformation. We believe there is evil in the world and that by the power of the Holy Spirit within us we are to overcome that evil. Mental illness is not one of those evils. It is the result of the evils of the world causing damage to the minds and hearts of the twenty percent of the population that struggle with mental illness.

According to our social principles,

The World Health Organization defines mental health as “a state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.” Unfortunately, mental health eludes many in our world resulting in considerable distress, stigma, and isolation. Mental illness troubles our relationships because it can affect the way we process information, relate to others, and choose actions. Consequently, mental illnesses often are feared in ways that other illnesses are not. Nevertheless, we know that regardless of our illness we remain created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27) and that nothing can separate us from the love of God (Romans 8:38-39).

No person deserves to be stigmatized because of mental illness. Those with mental illness are no more violent than other persons are. Rather, they are much more likely to be victims of violence or preyed on by others. When stigma happens within the church, mentally ill persons and their families are further victimized. Persons with mental illness and their families have a right to be treated with respect on the basis of common humanity and accurate information. They also have a right and responsibility to obtain care appropriate to their condition. The United Methodist Church pledges to foster policies that promote compassion, advocate for access to care and eradicate stigma within the church and in communities.[2]

Whether you see this as a demonic issue or a mental health issue we cannot blame the victim. If you believe them to be possessed, it is not something they likely chose. If they are suffering with a mental illness, they would not have chosen that either. In either case, the person needs the love and support of those around them to recover and find healing and wholeness. Our calling, our responsibility, is to be like Jesus. Go where they are. Offer words of life and encouragement. Walk with them so that they do not suffer alone. Let them know they are loved, accepted, and wanted as Jesus loves, accepts, and wants us.