In mid February I noticed a flood of tweets with the hashtag #bellletstalk inviting an honest conversation about mental health. My first thought, knowing that Rob Bell had a new book coming out, was excitement and relief that he had taken the brave step of writing something substantial on mental health issues and depression in the ministry. As it turns out, the Twitter flood was a charity drive by Bell Canada; very important work by them, but I’m afraid I came away (completely unreasonably!) feeling a bit disappointed in Rob Bell—because I think a conversation about mental health in Christian ministry is long overdue. It felt like a missed opportunity.
Now thanks to the bravery of Katherine Welby, we may be about to have that conversation.
To be honest, although I do want to see this conversation happen, I know I’m not the right person to kick it off and that I don’t have all that much to contribute personally. Still, here’s a couple of thoughts to try to push the issue onto people’s consciousness a bit more (and the point of that is to destigmatize mental illness, which we absolutely need to do.) and hopefully someone with more intelligent stuff to say can take over.
I recently reviewed Esau’s Blessing, which speaks of the spectrum of mental health states found in the characters of the Bible. I didn’t agree with all of its diagnoses, but it did show me that God can and does work with and through people whatever state they’re in. As Katherine Welby says:
I care passionately about the fact that people with mental problems or any form of disadvantage are excluded. This isn’t good enough. God created everyone. We are all designed in his image. That’s true of a person with autism, a person with cerebral palsy, a person in a wheelchair, a man, a woman. Every single person can give a glimpse of God.
One in four of us is going to suffer from mental illness at some point in our lives, (as the old joke goes, look around your house; if everyone else seems normal, it’s you.) and missionaries, pastors and other full-time religious workers are not magically exempt. These days it makes less and less sense to treat mental illness any differently to physical illness, particularly the more we understand about brain chemistry; something like depression is a fundamentally organic illness which requires professional treatment, medicine, prayer and loving support, and for which we can be hopeful of recovery—just like any other disease. In reality, though, I think our attitudes to mental illness are often colored by throwbacks to medieval notions: we find ourselves unconsciously thinking in terms of curse, in terms of weakness, or worse:
“Some Christians will say, ‘You’re not depressed’. Then they insinuate-–-or state directly-–-that you don’t have enough faith, or that depression is not biblical because the Holy Spirit gives us joy, or that you haven’t experienced the love of God. To which I just say, ‘I experienced the love of God more during my darkest period than at any other point in my life.’”
That needs to change. Can we talk?