When Mental Illness Comes Home
During a high school youth group meeting, we did an activity that involved saying nice things about the other people in our small group. I was shocked when one of the other girls said, “Amy, you just seem like you have it all together.”
I didn’t know what to say, and I can’t remember how I responded. But I remember how surprised I was because it was so far from the truth. For one thing, I had the same insecurities and hang-ups as all the other adolescent girls in that room. But what had really thrown me far from “having it all together” was that schizophrenia had come to our home, without even bothering to knock, and settled in for a long stay.
My mom had exhibited some signs of mental illness for as long as I had been around, but when I was 14, a period of extraordinary stress pushed her symptoms to the forefront and during my teenage years, Mom cycled through hospital stays and medications, delusions and hallucinations, while the rest of us tried to understand what was happening and pretend it wasn’t happening at the same time. When my friend complimented me, I realized no one could see my pain and confusion.
I kept quiet about Mom’s illness because I didn’t understand it well enough to explain it, I knew people didn’t talk about that kind of thing, and I desperately wanted to be normal. I had never heard a sermon that mentioned mental illness. I had never heard anyone suggest that people affected by mental illness still have a place in God’s purposes.
Since then, I’ve learned some important things about mental illness. If you’re suffering because you or a loved one has a mental illness, I’d like you to know these things too:
Mental illnesses are real medical conditions…they can be treated.
• Mental illnesses are real medical conditions, caused by biological and environmental factors, they can be treated. Some treatments are up to 90% effective. As with many other medical conditions, successful treatment doesn’t necessarily mean the illness is cured, but therapy and medications can help people manage their disorders and live well.
You are not alone.
• No matter what you feel, you’re not alone. Each year, more than 25% of adults in the United States suffer from a diagnosable mental illness. Mental illness is quite common. In fact, it’s about equal to the total percentage of people diagnosed with cancer each year, people with heart disease and diabetes, and everyone infected with HIV and AIDS—combined! although many people don’t talk about their experiences with mental illness, you are literally surrounded by others who can relate to your suffering.
God hasn’t abandoned you.
• In Romans 8:35-38, the apostle Paul, who suffered tremendously, asked, “Does it mean [God] no longer loves us if we have trouble or calamity, or are persecuted, or hungry, or destitute, or in danger, or threatened with death?” His answer: No! He went on to write that nothing, “not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love.” Mental illness can feel like an attack from hell itself, but regardless of how you may feel, it cannot drive God away from you, and abandonment is not in God’s nature.
God has not broken his promises to you.
• Despite what our culture may suggest, comfort, happiness, and perfect health are not our natural state. God has not promised them to us in this life, and he doesn’t owe us anything. In fact, humanity forfeited our claim on a perfect world in the beginning, when we chose to reject God’s rule—and we have been making this choice ever since. Jesus didn’t promise us health in this life, and in fact, he guaranteed us we would suffer: “Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows” (John 16:33). Suffering is not unusual and should not surprise us. What is shocking is that despite our sorry condition, we have hope. “But take heart,” Jesus said, “because I have overcome the world.”
Mental illness is not God’s punishment.
• We all deserve God’s punishment, and we’re all eligible for the grace he offers instead. When Jesus and his disciples saw a man who had been born with blindness (John 9), his disciples asked, “ ‘Why was this man born blind? Was it because of his own sins or his parents’ sins?’ ” Jesus told them, “ ‘It was not because of his sins or his parents’ sins…This happened so the power of God could be seen in him.’ ” God had a purpose in the man’s suffering, and it wasn’t punishment.
Mental illness is not a spiritual problem.
• This didn’t happen because you failed to pray enough, you don’t have enough faith, or you don’t read your Bible enough. Mental illness generally is not a spiritual problem (although the mind certainly can affect the spirit, and vice versa). While spiritual practices like prayer and Bible reading can help facilitate and support healing, illnesses (mental and otherwise) require treatment. Besides, God does not hold himself out of reach and demand that we earn his grace or demonstrate that we’re good enough for his healing touch. Jesus asked “all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens” to come to him and “find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light” (Matthew 11:28-30). He condemned legalistic religious leaders, “For you crush people with unbearable religious demands, and you never lift a finger to ease the burden” (Luke 11:46). Following Jesus may not be easy, but it’s not a religious burden. If someone is telling you your suffering would end if only you were a better Christian, that message is not from God.
God has a purpose for everyone.
• Our world tends to marginalize people who suffer from mental illness, disabilities and other conditions. Mental illness may alter the course of a person’s life, but it doesn’t mean that person’s life is no good anymore. Psalm 139 is a beautiful reminder of our value to God, and his attention to the details of our lives. Verse 16 celebrates, “You saw me before I was born. Every day of my life was recorded in your book. Every moment was laid out before a single day had passed.” God is not surprised by your suffering, and he wants to use you!
God wants to redeem your suffering.
• Sometimes this means he’ll use that suffering to make you more like the person he wants you to be. Sometimes it means your suffering will become a way for you to show his love and grace to someone else. Maybe both. You may never realize how God uses what you have been through, but he will—especially as you welcome his work in you. Second Corinthians 4:7-11 tells us our suffering bodies (and your brain is a part of your body) are valuable to God’s work: “Through suffering, our bodies continue to share in the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be seen in our bodies.” Our bodies are fragile and unadorned, but for Christians they carry the presence of God’s Spirit in this world, “like fragile clay jars containing this great treasure.” Mental illness doesn’t change the fact that we are called to represent him in these bodies. And good news for those of us who want to see God’s power work through us: As Christ told the apostle Paul, “My power works best in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
God is a promise keeper.
• Someday we will be remade, and all illness and suffering will cease. Our bodies are temporary and subject to the forces of decay, but someday we will have new bodies (including new brains) that don’t break down. Second Corinthians 5:1-5 describes the contrast between “this earthly tent we live in” and our permanent “house in heaven, an eternal body made for us by God himself and not by human hands.” Verse 4 provides a captivating image of what Jesus’ followers will experience someday: “While we live in these earthly bodies, we groan and sigh, but it’s not that we want to die and get rid of these bodies that clothe us. Rather, we want to put on our new bodies so that these dying bodies will be swallowed up by life.” Swallowed up by life! Can you imagine how that will feel? The vibrant, unimpeded life we all long for will be ours, and we will have no more reason for groaning.
God has never walked away from my family, and I’m proud and thankful to say that after decades of struggle, Mom is now managing her illness very well. God has graciously done his healing work in me, and I’m no longer ashamed or too confused to talk about what our family has experienced. In fact, I recently wrote a book, Troubled Minds, which shares some of our family’s story and challenges Christians to understand how they can better support people affected by mental illness.
I see evidence of God’s redemption and grace all over my family’s story—even though my mother has not been healed of her disease and we’ll go through plenty more suffering in this life. “That is why we never give up. Though our bodies are dying, our spirits are being renewed every day. For our present troubles are small and won’t last very long. Yet they produce for us a glory that vastly outweighs them and will last forever! So we don’t look at the troubles we can see now; rather, we fix our gaze on things that cannot be seen. For the things we see now will soon be gone, but the things we cannot see will last forever” (2 Corinthians 4:16-18).
Amy Simpson is author of Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission (InterVarsity Press).