Mental Illness and the Christian FaithBe Well

Luke 8:26-39

“How are you?”  It’s the most common question in all the world, in every culture.

“How are you?”  “Como esta?”  “Comment allez-vous?”  “Come Va?”

In my household, it’s ‘Wutz poppin’?”  “Wutz buzzin cousin?”  “How’s your gravy?”  “
Wassabi?”  How are you?

It’s both the most commonly asked question and the most halfheartedly, guardedly, disingenuously answered question, too.  We rarely answer it truthfully.  Instead, we turn to one of our standard, innocuous responses.  We are: “Great,” “Good,” “Fine,” “Okay,” “Hanging in there,” “Can’t complain,” “Medium well,” “Living the dream,” “Living like a pit bull in a butcher shop.”

But still, how are you?

It’s the question we’re asking over the next four weeks in our “Be Well” series, because how we answer that question is a matter that is profoundly important to God.  How are you?

One of the mistakes that Christians have made over the centuries is that we’ve assumed that Jesus was principally concerned with matters of right belief or doctrine.  For two thousand years, Christianity has been preoccupied with spiritual, metaphysical and supernatural concerns—salvation and damnation, heaven and hell, faith and doubt, miracles and angels—but has too often neglected the earthly, physical and corporeal concerns of life—flesh and blood, mind and body, our emotional and somatic natures, and all the things that make us wonderfully and uniquely human.

Christianity has sadly diminished the body in favor of elevating the soul.  Jesus the rabbi no doubt cared deeply about spiritual matters and the soul of a person; but Jesus the healer cared at least as much about the mind and body of a person.  For Jesus, body, mind, and spirit could not be separated.  He preached about “abundant life,” a wholeness of life in which the mind, spirit, and body are each fully alive because they are fully integrated in a person’s life.  Abundant life comes not from believing the right things, or by having religious certainty, or by preparing ourselves for the next world, but by being well in this world, by the grace of Christ and the love of community.

What does it mean to be well?  I want to talk today about what it means to be well of mind, and the challenges of living with mental illness.  Mental illness is a subject that the Church has historically avoided, not only because it has elevated spiritual matters over bodily matters; but also because so many Christians have erroneously associated mental illness with weakness of spirit, a lack of will power, a lack of faith, or even as punishment for sin.  Consequently, too many people suffer unnecessarily in shame and silence from mental illness.  All of this, along with the fact that mental illness is so complex, makes a sermon on faith and mental illness potentially fraught with over-simplification and misrepresentation—so I ask for your grace.

The statistics are staggering.  According to the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill,

  • 1 in 4 adults (25%) in the world will experience a mental health issue at least once in their lifetime
  • 1 in 5 adults (20%) in the U.S. experience mental illness each year (47 million people)
  • 1 in 25 (4.6%) adults in the U.S. experience serious mental illness each year
  • 1 in 6 (16.4%) U.S. youth aged 6-17 experience a mental health disorder each year
  • Suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death among people aged 10-34
  • 9 out of 10 people (90%) who die by suicide had shown symptoms of a mental health condition

What is mental illness?  It manifests itself in so many different ways that it’s difficult to clearly define: Bipolar disorder, anxiety disorder, schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, addiction, anorexia and bulimia, multiple personality disorder—these are just some of the terms that brain science and psychology have used to name the conditions that affect how the brain functions, which affects the way the mind operates, which then affects the way a person behaves.  A mental illness is a condition that affects a person’s thinking, feeling or mood, but each person will have different experiences, even people with the same diagnosis.

The most prevalent mental illnesses are:

  • Anxiety Disorders: 19.1% (48 million people)
  • Major Depressive Episode: 7.2% (17.7 million people)
  • Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: 3.6% (9 million people)
  • Bipolar Disorder: 2.8% (7 million people)
  • 19.3% of U.S. adults with mental illness also experience a substance use disorder (9.2 million people)

With any mental illness, what we consider as normal functioning in daily life and healthy ways of relating to self and others is hindered, blocked, or subverted by a condition, thereby diminishing one’s capacity to live fully.  With depression, this might present itself as the lack of motivation to get out of bed or accomplish simple tasks.  With anorexia, this presents as depriving the body of needed nutrition.  With PTSD, this might present as the inability to breath when a particular event triggers stress.  In each case, the mind trips into a self-destructive response as a result of a brain disorder.

We’ve come so far in our understanding of mental illness, but there is so much more to learn.  You can tell someone you have diabetes, and the common response will likely be one of compassion and sympathy; but tell someone you have depression, or suffer from bi-polar disorder, and the still too common response is one of disaffection and fear.  The stigma is real.  Those who endure mental illness often feel ostracized, shamed, judged, and cut off from the world—like the man we read about from Luke’s gospel.

He dwells in the cemetery, the land of the dead.  Each night, the townspeople hear him shrieking among the tombs.  Sometimes they will catch him, bind his wrists and ankles in chains, and haul his naked, shackled body back into town.  But there’s no end to the madness, and he escapes every time.  Trailing broken chains behind him, he wanders the fields, tearing at his skin until it bleeds, trading one kind of pain for another.

If he has a name, no one seems to know it.  If he has a past, no one seems to remember it.  If he has a soul worth saving behind the darkness in his eyes, no one sees it.  No one looks.

Until Jesus looks.

The story seems strange to modern readers.  It’s full of bizarre details, like talking demons, public nakedness, herds of swine, and instant healing.  It’s all a bit disturbing—especially the part about the demons.

I never know what to do when the Bible makes references to demons or evil spirits.  Maybe, in Biblical times, they had the same problems we have today, but didn’t have names for disorders like epilepsy or schizophrenia, so they just called it all “demon possession.”  Or maybe, back then, demon possession really was a major problem, but, like polio and smallpox, it’s just not an affliction that we have anymore.  Or maybe, for all we know, there really is such a thing as “demon possession” in our world, but it’s more palatable, less frightening, for us to use medical and scientific terms to describe the things that possess us.  I honestly don’t know.

But what I do know is that many of people have suffered from addictions and compulsions and conditions that have overtaken our lives, making them do and think things they don’t want to do or think—things that hurt themselves or others, things that bind them in chains and leave them wandering among the tombstones, cut off from this world.  Call it whatever you like, but it’s an epidemic, and the demon becomes only more powerful, the possession becomes only more controlling, when we refuse to speak about it.

Jesus came to set every captive free, even this one in Luke’s gospel who, living among the tombs, was as good as dead to his community.  “Nothing can be done about him,” the people lamented.

But Jesus, “The Great Physician,” is unconvinced and undeterred, and if we watch what Jesus does in this story, we can gain some insight that may help us, whether we ourselves suffer from a mental illness, or we are trying to love someone who does.

“What’s your name,” asks Jesus?  It’s such a simple question, but it’s essential to the man’s healing.  “What’s your name?”

Here is a man who, as a consequence of his illness, has lost everything: his mind and sanity, his self-worth and dignity, his family and home and community.  But what is more painful than losing any of that is the loss of his humanity.  He lives among tombs, shackled like an animal, naked, isolated, cut off from the human family; he howls like a wild beast; he hurts himself.  What’s worse than his illness is the dehumanization and shame he’s endured at the hands of his community, which have made him less than human.

So, Jesus asks him, “What’s your name?”  To have a name is to be human.  To know a person’s name, according to the ancients, was to know a person’s essence or being, to know the person as a person and nothing less.  “What’s your name?”

But the man has forgotten that he’s a person.  He knows himself only by the name of that which possesses him—“Legion.”  A legion was the basic unit of the Roman Army, consisting of 6,000 soldiers.  “My name is Legion,” he says, “because within me is a terrible, violent war going on.”  That war has defined not only how he lives, but how he understands himself—his identity.

People who suffer from mental illness often struggle to differentiate what they have from who they are.  They might say, “I’m depressed,” rather than, “I have depression,” or, “I’m bi-polar,” rather than “I have bipolar.”  “I’m anorexic,” “I’m borderline, I’m bulimic.”

But if you struggle with mental illness, your illness is not your identity; your brain chemistry is not your character.  Depression, anxiety—these are not who you are; they’re simply what you have.  Who you are is God’s beloved.  What you have is a disease, not a defect of your essence or being.  You are not your illness.  Instead, think of your illness as a character in the story that is you.

Lutheran Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber speaks of her own past experience with depression in this way.  She came to see her depression as a character in her life.  She actually gave her depression a name.

She named it Francis, after Francis Bean, the daughter of Courtney Love and Curt Cobain.

Francis first came to visit Nadia in her teens and early 20s, which was written off by her family as Nadia just being “moody.”  But later, Francis seemed to increasingly like the same things Francis liked: alcohol, emotionally unstable boyfriends, self-destruction.  That’s when Francis finally just moved in, turning Nadia’s studio apartment into a Wilderness.

Francis was a terrible roommate.  She kept the place filthy and always told Nadia really devastating things about herself. Her life fell apart.  People worried about her.  One day her mother realized that Francis the roommate was a major problem and suggested that Nadia go talk to a nice lady about evicting her.

Francis was a bit of a dope fiend, but it turned out there was one drug that she didn’t like.  It’s called Wellbutrin.  Two weeks after she started taking it, Francis was gone.

But not for good, she says.

“20 years later it still seems like she knows how to find me and sometimes she’ll show up, unannounced and stay a couple days even though I’m now into so many things she hates: sobriety, exercise, community, eating well – and of course, Jesus.”

It’s a brilliant notion, that your illness is not you, but just a character in your story—and that you have agency, a choice, in how you want to relate to that character.

“What’s your name,” asks Jesus?  “Legion,” says the man.  But that is not his real name.  It’s just what he has, the character that Jesus comes to evict.  And it’s that power of Jesus’ compassion, his capacity to see through the illness, to the heart and soul of the man, that leads to his restoration.

There’s something else that Jesus does in this story that makes all the difference for the man: Jesus says the hard, courageous word.

According to the text, the demons beg Jesus not to destroy them.  They beg for a more humane treatment.  They plead for kindness.  “Go easy on us.  Cast us into the herd of pigs, rather than into the bottomless pit.”  But I love The Messagetranslation of what Jesus does next.  It says, “Jesus gives the order.”  The demons leave the man, take up residence in the pigs, which immediately stampede over the cliff and into lake.

It’s another bizarre detail, I know.  But don’t let the pigs distract you.  The pigs are there simply because, as we know, everything is better with bacon.

Focus instead on the “command” of Jesus.  Jesus refuses to go easy on the man.  Jesus is compassionate, but he doesn’t feel sorry for the man.  He meets him where he is, but refuses to let him stay there, even it means challenging him in uncomfortable ways.

Whether you suffer from a mental health condition, or love someone who does, always remember that what can make all the difference in the world is the dogged encouragement of others.

William Styron, the late Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist of Sophie’s Choice, wrote a memoir of his experience with severe depression years ago called Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness.  It’s an account of his journey through the anguish and darkness of depression—a journey into the heart of despair and the brink of suicide.  It’s also about his journey of recovery and healing.

Out of it all, he says, he learned that there are almost never any sufficient answers as to why people suffer from depression, and that an important part of recovery is learning to accept those unresolved questions.  But, he says, what is more important that finding the answers, is that those who are suffering a siege of depression be told by someone, in fact be convinced by someone, that they will pull through.  The most important part of recovery is having someone tell you to get up, to breathe, to walk out of the valley.  Styron says, “It is a tough job.  Calling “Chin up!” from the safety of the shore to a drowning person is tantamount to insult, but it has been shown over and over again that if the encouragement is dogged enough… the endangered one can nearly always be saved.”

It’s counter-intuitive to push, prod and provoke someone when they are in so much pain, but it saves lives and empowers a sense of agency.

Jesus gave the order, as he did so often in his ministry.  “Get up.”  “If you want to be made well, be well.”  “Lazarus, come out of the tomb.”  The tough love of Jesus is life-giving, life-saving.

Jesus does one last thing that makes all the difference.  The man, once he’s healed, wants to follow Jesus.  But Jesus has a better idea.  He knows that what the man needs more than anything, where he will truly find his salvation, is in being restored to his community.

The man had been completely isolated, out of control and alone and in pain.  Every demon wants us to be out of control and alone and in pain—depression, addiction, mania.  It’s the objective of every demon.  The way to defeat the demon is to restore the man to community. This is why the demons feared Jesus to begin with.  In every healing story in the gospels, Jesus doesn’t just cure people’s diseases and cast our their demons and then say, “Mission Accomplished.”  Jesus is always after something more than that, because the healing is never fully accomplished until there is a restoration to community.  Jesus tells the man healed of demons to stay with his people and speak of what God has done.  In the reclamation business of Jesus, community is always a necessary part of healing.

In her book, The Unquiet Mind, Kay Jamison offers an account of her manic-depressive episodes, and her struggle with medications taken to address her condition.  What has helped more than anything?  She says this:

“We all build internal sea walls to keep at bay the sadness of life and the often overwhelming forces within our minds.  In whatever ways we do this – through love, work, family, faith, friends – we build these walls, stone by stone, over a lifetime.  One of the most difficult problems is to construct these barriers of such a height and strength that one has a true harbor, a sanctuary away from the crippling turmoil and pain, but yet low enough and permeable enough to let in fresh seawater…. For someone with my cast of mind and mood, medication is an integral element of this wall: without it, I would unquestionably be dead or insane.

But love is, to me, the ultimately more extraordinary part of the breakwater wall: it helps to shut out the terror and awfulness, while at the same time allowing in life and beauty and vitality…  love as sustainer, as renewer, and as protector.  After each seeming death within my mind or heart, love has returned to re-create hope and restore life.”

In the reclamation business of Jesus, that breakwater wall is this community of love we call the church.  And if you are taking on water, if you are suffering, if you are alone and in pain and out of control, we are here.