Growing up I remember visiting a museum (might have been the Smithsonian). I saw a display with prehistoric skulls with holes in the skulls. Archaeologists call this trepanning. They have varying theories as to the reason for trepanning. But one of the explanations I recall reading at the museum is that these individuals may have suffered from severe headaches attributed to evil spirits and that those within their villages believed that boring a hole through their skull would provide an opening for the evil spirit to escape. (I know; crazy, right?) I don’t remember much of what I saw in museums growing up, but I have never forgotten that display. As I moved into my teen years I developed migraine headaches and from time to time reflected on the fact that, had I lived in prehistoric times, I very likely may have been judged as demon possessed and someone would have carved a hole in my head… Which would be about as helpful as – well, a hole in your head!
In such primitive times, gods or demons were considered the cause of any unexplained phenomenon. It was a rather superstitious, magical world folks lived in and I’m thankful we now have the benefit of things like MRI’s, cultures, vaccines and blood panels. But sometimes I’m not so sure we’ve made a huge amount of progress with regards to mental health issues, especially in the church. Take depression, for example. Sometimes those within the church treat others who struggle with depression as if they are somehow spiritually deficient. They should pray more and keep a Gratitude Journal… neither of which is likely to make a dramatic change in brain chemistry. Don’t get me wrong; I’m a big proponent of prayer and counting our blessings. But medication or therapy can also be God’s answer to our prayers… and not everything that goes wrong in this life gets fixed in this life.
Sometimes I wonder if individuals with mental illness or physical disabilities simply cause us fear with regards to our own well-being. Perhaps we don’t want to consider our own vulnerabilities and want to believe that faith and prayer are a kind of talisman to protect us from anything that might go wrong (modern day “magic”).
But when we rush to judgments or practice avoidance or refuse to talk about or think about issues of mental health, it’s not healthy, it’s not loving… and it’s not even Church. Church should be a place where we can share our struggles and face our fears together. Church should be a place of compassion and honesty. That’s what Jesus was about.
At our February Trinity Fusion, we’ll engage in some open, honest dialogue about mental health and how to support those who struggle with mental health issues. We’ll consider how the Church can follow the example of Jesus and respond to those with mental health issues with the honesty and compassion of Christ.