David was bipolar. Elijah suffered from depression and despondency. Other Old Testament characters grappled with mental instability.
Perhaps we shouldn’t mention it - but why not? The Bible tells it like it is.
A stigma. That’s what it has come to.
Mention the need for prayer for cancer, diabetes, heart attacks and other health conditions and people rally round with fervent support.
But not mental illness. As in the USA, so also over here.
As Ed Stetzer, executive director of LifeWay Research, explains: “If someone had come to my church with a broken leg, I would have recommended they go see a doctor. For virtually any other illness, I would have said the same. It is common practice in churches, however, to treat mental illness differently. We immediately assume there is something else, some deeper spiritual struggle causing mental and emotional strain.”
And the numbers are staggering.
In the USA, one in four Americans suffers from some kind of mental illness in any given year, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (2014); in Singapore, it’s roughly one in eight (Chong et al. 2012). Yet nearly half of all churches do not speak of this ailment from the pulpit, or if they do, only rarely.
Bob Smietana reports in one survey, that about a quarter of pastors (22 percent) are reluctant to help those who suffer from acute mental illness because it takes too much time: “And pastors themselves aren’t immune from mental illness. About a quarter of pastors (23 percent), say they’ve experienced some kind of mental illness, while 12 percent say they’ve received a diagnosis for a mental health condition.”
Once, seeing a psychiatrist or psychologist was kept “hush hush”. No longer. People recognise that it makes sense to get the best help available for one’s condition. There could be underlying connections to these illnesses (as with all illnesses) in the form of some spiritual warfare or attack, but that’s not always the case. Don’t pre-judge that there’s a lack of faith or of prayer or even some secret hidden sin. There could be a perfectly straightforward medical explanation or diagnosis.
One way to make this less of a taboo is to talk about it openly, experts agree. Mental illness can afflict anyone, even the best of us. This side of heaven, sin and disease wreak havoc on mind, soul and body. But a person’s mental condition does not define their identity.
Mental illness can afflict anyone, even the best of us. This side of heaven, sin and disease wreak havoc on mind, soul and body. But a person’s mental condition does not define their identity.
In the end, David and Elijah are better known for their faith and faithfulness. They had their emotional struggles. The Bible does not gloss over these besetting conditions. Even our Lord Jesus was not beyond suspicion of mental disorder as some people, including members of His immediate earthly family, suspected He was off-balance (Mark 3:21) and tried to save Him from Himself!
But God’s opinion of them is what finally counts – He knows all the thoughts of the mind and all the motives of the heart. There is no disorder or breakdown with Him. To Him, these were people who had His desires upon their own heart and accomplished His destiny for their lives. Mae West (of all people!) may have got it right when she said: “You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough.”
God is still the ever-present and ultimate healer. He can turn the tide; He can calm the angry sea. And if He doesn’t, we trust He knows what’s best and gives grace for the journey.
Dr Andrew Goh is the editor of IMPACT Magazine
This article 'An illness by any name still needs help' is featured in the latest issue of IMPACT (Feb/Mar 2018). Subscribe today.
Anxiety: An Unwelcome Ride
... Using God-given gifts to defeat anxiety
Dancing With Bipolar
... Understanding the steps
The Most Misunderstood Illness
... Debunking common myths about mental disorders
Young Onset Dementia
... Lessons from a caregiver
Panel Interview: The Sickness No One Wants To Talk About
A Singaporean In Bolivia
... An interview with Bishop Raphael Samuel
... Resurrection changes everything
Being Chinese And Christian
... Why Asian Christians must be incarnational in our cultural community