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Mental Illness is No Laughing Matter

How the church can better respond to individuals suffering in darkness

Throughout history, mental illness has met with confusion, misunderstanding and mistreatment—even horror, persecution and torture. Though we have made progress in fits and starts, people with mental illness have never had more hope for productive life than they have now. But despite the progress, we live in a society that is still deeply confused about mental illness.

Misinformed by the media

Have you ever paid attention to the way people with mental illness are portrayed in popular media? While some outlets treat mental illness with honesty and sensitivity, most of popular media treats the mentally ill as frightening, funny, or both. Most people don't seem to give it a second thought, but for people whose loved ones suffer from ongoing mental illness, such portrayals are hard to ignore.

Try watching movies like Psycho, Strange Brew, Crazy People, The Shining, Misery, and Fatal Attraction through the eyes of someone who struggles with mental illness. Or turn on the TV this week and watch with a new perspective. On any given evening, you should be able to find at least one show that either reinforces terror of the mentally ill, or makes light of their illness for a cheap laugh.

Misinformation, as well as entertainment that pokes fun at people with mental illness—and in some cases encourages laughter at the idea of their mistreatment—accomplishes three things:

  1. It further marginalizes and dehumanizes people with mental illness by treating them as caricatures. It's easy to laugh if we forget we're laughing at real people suffering from real illnesses.
  2. It encourages persecution and mistreatment.
  3. It discourages people from seeking help for mental illness. In an environment that vacillates between mockery and horror, who wants to be the one to raise a hand and say, "Yeah, that's me. I need to go to the doctor to get my medication adjusted."

Serious mental illness has mythological status in our culture. No wonder so many people in the church—just like those outside the church—have no idea how to relate to a real person who acknowledges or displays a mental illness. This general societal misunderstanding of mental illness affects all of us.

Creating a loving Christian response

In her book Darkness Is My Only Companion: A Christian Response to Mental Illness, Kathryn Greene-McCreight shares journal entries, stories and spiritual insights from her experience living with bipolar disorder. She mentions this about Christians' response to mental illness: "Christian communities still have a fear of the mentally ill. In part they do not understand mental illness, in part there is a false assumption that the Christian life should always be an easy path, and in part the problem of suffering is hard to grasp."

In many churches, intentionally or unintentionally, the overriding emphasis is on "victorious Christian living," with the basic assumption that real Christians don't have problems—or at least not crippling, persistent problems that a prayer or two won't cure. Some churches purposely embrace this as a basic doctrine. Many more churches adopt it without realizing they've done so. This theology is based on the belief that as Christians we should expect complete victory over the effects of sin here and now—as evidence of our faith and God's love for us.

This is in direct contradiction to what Jesus said: "Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world" (John 16:33). Peter said we shouldn't be surprised when Christians suffer, not just in spite of their faith but because of it: "Dear friends, don't be surprised at the fiery trials you are going through, as if something strange were happening to you. Instead, be very glad—for these trials make you partners with Christ in his suffering, so that you will have the wonderful joy of seeing his glory when it is revealed to all the world" (1 Peter 4:12-13).

Experiencing victory in a sin-stained world

This idea that Christians don't suffer is also in direct contradiction to the actual experience of Christians that slug their way through trouble daily, and find themselves at the mercy of decay, pain and sorrow—such as that brought on by a mental illness or disorder. When churches emphasize victory in a way that suggests Christians don't experience problems, they alienate and undermine the faith of suffering people of all kinds, including those touched by mental illness.

My friend Angie remembers her church sending this message as she was growing up: "Everything was just victorious Christian living . . . Nothing about mental illness at all. I remember one woman in the church saying what a bad person this counselor was because he was encouraging people to look at their problems, and that's not a Christian way of doing things."

I don't want to suggest that it's inappropriate to talk about spiritual victory. We do have victory in Christ. As forgiven people, we are no longer slaves to sin and its ultimate consequence: "We know that our old sinful selves were crucified with Christ so that sin might lose its power in our lives. We are no longer slaves to sin" (Romans 6:6). But while we are not slaves, we still live in the slaves' quarters.

Our world is poisoned by sin, our bodies are cursed, and all of our endeavors are flawed. God has promised to remove us from this world someday and to replace these imperfect bodies with new bodies (including, I believe, new brains) suited for life in a perfect world without decay. We can walk in the light of that future hope, even though we live in a shadowy world. When churches embrace this dual reality, they help bring lifesaving hope to suffering people.

Adapted from Troubled Minds by Amy Simpson. Copyright © 2013 by Amy Simpson. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press. www.ivpress.com. Click here to readAmy Simpson's story of growing up in the shadow of schizophrenia in TCW's May/June digital magazine. You need to be a subscriber in order to gain access. To become a TodaysChristianWoman.com subscriber, click here.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

Amy Simpson

Amy Simpson is the managing editor of marriage and parenting resources for Today's Christian Woman and the editor of GiftedForLeadership.com. Connect with Amy at amysimpsononline.com.

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