Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Healing Power of Mental Healthcare

I’m putting myself out on a limb, which is never a comfortable place to be, and I know hate-mail is soon to follow, but I’m going to say it anyway. I feel that I have to.

Articles about mental healthcare in America are swarming the Internet. Everyone seems to agree on two things: a sickness called mental illness is responsible for the Newtown tragedy, and better mental healthcare in America is the answer.

I’m going to make myself horribly unpopular and adamantly disagree with both of these points, since no one else seems to be questioning them.

The first point: was mental illness responsible for what happened? It all depends on what people mean by mental illness. If you are using the term to be synonymous with sin, then we could agree. We could also agree that sin works its evil in peculiar ways and sometimes someone becomes so depraved, that their humanity, their bearing of God’s image, becomes so marred that they hardly seem human. If that is what is meant by mentally ill, then I won’t squabble.

But I tend to think that the word “illness” in the term mental illness is not incidental—that it denotes something. Often, people use the term “mental illness” because they believe that it is a disease that you come down with. No one knows why most kinds of cancer come out of nowhere and often there is no lifestyle connection (lung cancer for a smoker being an exception.) So it is thought with mental illness. You just kind of come down with it of no fault of your own.

I cannot swallow this line of thinking because I see no hints of this idea anywhere in scripture. The pages are teeming with those whom we would nowadays deem mentally ill, but we are not lead to view them through the clinical model. I’m not trying to clumsily point out that the words “mentally ill” aren’t in the Bible, but that the concept behind that idea does not exist.

Take Cain for instance. Now here’s a man who has anger management issues—he kills his brother with his bare hands. But neither Cain, nor Herod (now there’s a man with mental health issues), nor King Saul (another real nutcase), nor any other murderer in the Bible is given any other diagnosis other than the plain old sin inherited by their father Adam.

The Bible does not tell the story of Saul, for instance, in such a way that we are lead to believe that Saul one day come down with mental illness. Instead, the narrative tells of a man who day by day rejected a relationship with the living God, his creator, and that God finally gave him over to his deranged mind. We think America needs to improve its mental health system? What about Israel—didn’t even have treatment for their own king? Too bad Freud hadn’t come along yet, maybe Saul could have been helped?

Is that how we really think? Is mental health really going to save anyone? Who is our savior? Is it Freud or is it Jesus Christ?

I hope I do not sound callous at this point—like I’m trying to pick fights and split hairs at a time of national tragedy. But nothing could be farther from the truth.

I write completely out of compassion. You see, the mental health worldview is essentially a hopeless one. If mental illness can descend upon one at anytime, like cancer, what choice do we have in the matter? What hope do we have left? Who will be the next victim among us.

But the Bible neither treats our condition so lightly as to call it a mere illness, nor does it heal our condition so flippantly as to say that better mental healthcare is all we need.

Our problem is much more serious than something you could come down with—it is something that is inside of every one of us, inherited.

The only answer in the world to counter such wickedness, such an assault on life, such an assault upon the image of God, such an act of evil piled upon evil, such a despicable abomination, is the brutal death of the most innocent, loving, perfect man to walk the earth. There is no other name under heaven by which men may be saved.

All others are pretenders and have been shown time and time again to be utterly bankrupt. America’s mental health system cannot save us from the problem of evil, therapists have no true answers to these problems, psychology used by itself is bankrupt, psychiatric drugs cannot save, therapists cannot save. They are utterly false saviors, pretenders to the throne, and have no saving answers in the face of evil. All their plans turn to dust.

If all you mean when you say you desire better mental healthcare, is simply more facilities to house people that are completely given over to a depraved mind, and keep them locked up so they aren’t wreaking havoc on the streets, I won’t argue. Or, if referring to psychiatrists helping people, you mean simply that when mad people are heavily sedated, they will do less harm, I am not going to pick bones with that. But I know that most people do not mean that or they wouldn’t be bringing it up at this time—those concerns don’t apply to this situation.

I should add that just because I use the word sin in place of mental illness, does not mean for a second that I think of myself as better than “those sinful people.” No, sin cuts through every human heart, including my own. It is only by God’s restraint and mercy that we are not all as bad as we could be. It is a great mystery why at times his hand of restraint is removed and the destructiveness of sin is allowed to momentarily show all its fury, its ugliness, and the depravity of the human heart is for a time laid bare for all to shudder at. But it is certainly at such a time that we should see clearly that bandaids will not work for such insidious evil.

“They have healed the wound of my people lightly.” Jeremiah 6:14


David Madeira said...


Blogger told me that my comment was too long to post, so I'm going to try to post this in segments.

Here's part one:

I fully agree with you that ultimate root cause of the evil that happens in the world is a result of humanity's sinful rejection of God. Sin is the cause, and only Christ is the ultimate cure. However, because of the evil and sin that run rampant in this world, it is a drastic oversimplification, and one that breeds inaction, to say that because Christ is the ultimate answer we should not be applying our intellects, research, resources, and creativity to make the world a safer place.

What that amounts to is a denial of the Church's responsibility to be agents of God's restorative work. The Church is called to feed the hungry, tend to the sick, visit those who are in prison, etc. Take hunger for example. If we believe that death is a product of the Fall, then we would infer that starvation would not happen in a sinless, unfallen world. But we do not live in that world. We live in a world in which death and starvation surround us. And our job as the Church, as stated by Christ, is quite clear: to feed the hungry, not just tell them they are hungry because Adam and Eve ate the apple. Yes, that is true, and we could try to convince them of that as they are dying and rejoice that they die saved, or we could help them live and then preach the gospel of eternal life.

Jesus says "I was hungry and you gave me something to eat," not "I was hungry and you explained to me that I was a sinner and that's why there's hunger." Christ says "I was sick and you looked after me," not "I was sick and you told me it was really just sin and to repent."

Of course I'm not advocating a purely social gospel. The opposite extreme is to say Jesus was merely preaching social justice and to extrapolate a theology of sin is overkill. I do not believe this. I believe the Church is to be both the prophetic voice of God, and the hands and feet of Jesus to the world.

So, whether or not this kind of mental illness is an unfortunate disease that strikes by mere chance (the clinical model), or the result of a world given over to sin, our job as the church is to be both the spiritual and physical salve to those in need. Simply put, the mentally ill are in desperate need of our help, and the best help they can get is help by those who are motivated by the gospel.

David Madeira said...

Here's part two of my comment:

We could stretch your line of thinking even further and apply it to physical injury. If I cut myself deeply while making dinner, should I say "this wound is merely a product of the Fall, and scripture does not speak of band-aids or disinfectant, therefore I will merely ask for forgiveness from Christ the ultimate Healer and I'm sure I'll be ok." If I do that, I believe this is what will happen: I will die, and God will say to me, "What were you thinking? I gave you band-aids ... why did you not use them?" If I say, "Because you did not tell me to use band-aids in the Bible," I believe God will say, "yes, but I created for you a body that can heal itself with help, and a brain and the ability to learn about the created, physical world in which you live. I gave you everything you need to know that you will bleed to death unless you stop the bleeding. Did you really need a scriptural basis for dressing your wounds?"

I don't think it too much of a stretch to compare this with what you have had to say about mental illness. Both mental illness and physical injury, we believe, are products of sin and death entering our world. But as the body of Christ we are meant to address these issues with both the mind of God and the hands and feet of Jesus. Therapy for the mental ill is not going to save them, ultimately, nor will it save the world. Neither will a band-aid. But both are here by the intellect and creativity given to us by God to help those in need. The Church's job has never been to remain entirely in the pulpit, preaching on the evils of the world, just as Jesus did not stay in the synagogues dispensing wisdom. The Church needs to also be a part of the day to day dirty work of self-sacrifice and compassion to help with the day-to-day needs of those suffering. We need to not just pray for rain in drought-affected areas, to but to go bring food and water to those affected. We can not merely wave off the mentally ill as sinners; we must be a part of their healing -- spiritually, mentally, physically.

In short, the Church should not stand opposed to attempts to improve mental health care in America; rather, it should make itself a voice in that process, in the conversation, and in the dirty work of helping to treat the mentally ill. Everything in secular culture (like mental healthcare) is not inherently wrong; but without the voice of the gospel it is inherently misguided, and needs the guidance and input of the Church. It needs the mind, heart, and Body of Christ. If the Church does not help to supply that, who will?

Leslie said...

Hey Dave:

It doesn't surprise me that a family member wrote such a long comment. It must run in the family ;)

Can't think of anything you just wrote that I disagree with.

Everything I was trying to say you summed up towards the end: "Everything in secular culture (like mental healthcare) is not inherently wrong; but without the voice of the gospel it is inherently misguided."

Exactly what I was trying to say, more mental healthcare without the gospel will not help. But many people think it will. I'm not against mental healthcare as "damage control" so to speak, but as another savior. I hope that makes sense.

Jeanne said...

Although I'm in the family, I am very short-winded. Here's a thought to add to your posts: It appears that our culture is providing an environment that is causing people to become literally sick in their spirits and in their heads. There are a number of things that we consume in large quantities that are making us sick--constant exposure to extreme violence as in video games and movies, the tragic breakdown of marriages, lots of casual sex with no meaning or commitment to name a few examples. So yes, I do believe mental illness exists and we are making ourselves sick, and that goes back to the problem of unbridled sin. Most people have no concept of what's going to happen in their heads and hearts if they play violent video games 8 hours a day and then go watch a slasher movie. As C.S. Lewis said, we must be the stupidest generation there's ever been. Don't know if that's true, but we must be close.

patty said...

leslie, i couldn't agree more with your post. i have been to hell and back this year and am sick to death of talking about mental health. my 19 y/o was diagnosed with both bipolar disorder and a personality disorder this past spring, and all most of her drs did was pump her full of strong meds and try to control her behavior, leaving us to pick up the pieces. what this country needs is to turn to God and turn away from our sinful ways. my daughter almost destroyed our family, and i can tell you that bipolar isn't her main problem--it's sin. she could be on the best meds available, but without Jesus, she has no hope. thank you for speaking up and saying what needs to be said! Merry Christmas!