Sunday, 8 January 2012

Christianity and mental illness - further thoughts

Having said that the church has problems with mental illness, I would like to highlight a few exceptions, for the sake of balance. I attend a Friday morning men's prayer breakfast and have felt able to share my mental health difficulties openly without fear of condemnation. There is a psychiatrist in that group who is particularly supportive, having had his own, different, mental health issues. We are planning to meet up regularly to pray together. He also has similar taste in music to me and has lent me some wonderful music, a lot of which I have found very soothing - see my recent recommendations on my Music page. It's not all bad in the church - there will always be individuals who are understanding, either due to personal experience, or due to people close to them suffering mental illness. They may have more knowledge of the area, through work, or just be the kind of people who accept others as they are. That's how Jesus was, and how his followers should be. You find, in the Gospels, that people are accepted by Jesus with compassion first, and then a change comes out of that acceptance. He stands against the Pharisees with their over-zealous application of the law - don't heal today, it's the Sabbath, for example. In therapy, the attitude of Jesus is translated into "Unconditional Positive Regard" (Carl Rogers). Rogers talks of the need for warmth, integrity and empathy when working with clients. This was in contrast to the Freudian style where the therapist would not reveal anything about themselves and would avoid eye contact by sitting behind the patient, who would be on the couch, in an inferior position to the therapist. There were all sorts of reasons why Freud did this, some to do with his views on transference and countertransference and being a clean sheet for the client to project on. However, I've found that if you engage at a deeper level with the client, the transference and countertransference also become deeper. For further thoughts on this read my paper in Approaches.
Some leading clergy speak very compassionately and with understanding about mental health, for example Bishop Stephen of Ely. However, there is a still a great deal of misunderstanding and offensive ideas within the church, across denominations. Sometimes it is the more evangelical churches that fail to understand human weakness. They often have the view that if you are following Christ, and are full of the Holy Spirit, you are somehow immune from illness, particularly psychological ones. Would that were the case! They might even view some illnesses as a punishment from God.  I don't particularly like having depression, but I see it as a part of who I am, who I have been, and possibly who I will be, this side of heaven at least. It has hopefully made me more compassionate and more able to do my work with integrity and understanding.
In future posts I will explore some of the Biblical texts that may have been used against people with mental illness, and will expound what I believe to be a more rounded understanding of the Biblical Christian attitude to it.

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