Sharon Hastings has faced severe mental illness (read her remarkable story here). She explains eight things fellow Christians should keep in mind when talking about mental ill health
1. Anyone can develop severe mental illness
It is a common misconception that only people from deprived backgrounds who are poorly educated and may have used recreational drugs get psychosis. This simply isn’t true. I was middle class, a medical student and had never experimented with substances, yet it happened to me and can happen to others like me.
2. Committed Christians get severe mental illness
As the Church, we are beginning to realise that Christians get depressed and anxious. If three per cent of the UK population suffers from psychosis at some point, there will be a handful of struggling Christians like me who have psychotic illness in most congregations. Let’s look out for them.
3. Psychotic symptoms can create confusion
Great care must be taken to be sure that mental illness is addressed if a Christian presents – as I did – with concerns about dark or scary experiences. Deliverance ministry can be destructive if used inappropriately in this context, so it’s a good idea to seek advice from a Christian psychiatrist.
4. Mental illness can create identity issues
If mental illness leads to someone losing a job, the ability to live independently, or even the capacity to parent their own child, they may feel that their illness defines them. Other Christians can help them to realise that they are, most importantly, a child of God. This is an important step towards personal recovery.
5. Faith is empowering and mental health professionals recognise it
It is widely accepted that having a faith is helpful to recovery. This presents an opportunity for churches, who can offer community, fellowship and discipleship. In my case, these supports (along with friends and family) were strong enough that the Community Mental Health Team was able to withdraw completely.
6. Recovery is possible
Even where there has been very severe and debilitating illness, it is possible for a person to know recovery. This is not likely to mean cure but implies improved quality of life.
This has been my experience and I have benefited from having other Christians walk alongside me, especially through the difficult journey towards an accurate diagnosis and getting effective treatment.
7. Stigma is real
To stigmatise is “to mark with disgrace”; in contrast, we Christians are intended to be ministers of grace. Jesus lived with and for those on the margins, including those with mental illness; we should too.
8. Caring is our calling
Jesus said that when he returns to judge the world, and the righteous ask him: “‘When did we see you ill…?’ The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me’” (Matthew 25:39-40).
God cares about the ‘least of these’ with severe mental illness; what we do for them, we do for Jesus.