The Church ought to have much to say that is affirming and encouraging for those who are mentally unwell, but it frequently falls into a trap
When the wheels fall off the England cricket bandwagon, they frequently do so in spectacular fashion. The Ashes tour of 2013/14 will be remembered for many things: the five-nil drubbing, Swann’s impromptu retirement and the deliberate ending of Pietersen’s national career, among others. The early warning signal was the sudden departure of Jonathan Trott for unspecified mental problems.
The cautious language deployed by the team management suggested a desire to protect Trott from prying enquiries into his mental health; the supposition being that he was suffering from depression. English cricket has had its share of high profile depressives: Graeme Fowler, Marcus Trescothick and Michael Yardy among them. Cricket historian David Frith has even written a book about the unusual number of players and ex-players who have taken their own lives. Theories have been offered as to why this is so, ranging from the long periods of time spent away from home and family to the vagaries of form loss, which is easily evidenced in a statistics based sport and can result in rapid demotion and pecuniary loss. All this is no more than informed speculation; the truth is: we can’t be sure.
There was much sympathy for Jonathan Trott at the time, but this has lessened with the more recent suggestion that it was ‘burn out’ rather than depression which triggered his departure from the tour. What exactly is burn out and how does it differ from diagnosable mental illness? Is it just another euphemism like ‘nervous breakdown’? There is a cruel legacy around issues of mental health which still means people feel they have to find ways of distinguishing their pain from a diagnosable illness.
These are stressful times: rapid technological change is turning the global economy upside down, as with the industrial revolution. For today’s worker, this is coupled with the effects of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. There are many signs that people’s mental health is suffering, but few resources are ever devoted to the problem from national budgets, despite these warnings.
The stigma surrounding mental health may have lessened in a generation, but it endures. It is still seen as something distinct from physical health, despite all the advances we have made in neuroscience; there is a feeling that we should be able to control it in a way we cannot with our physical health. In reality, the only thing we can do to preserve ourselves from mental ill health is to take the same kinds of precautions we take over our physical health: to look after our bodies, to be gentle with ourselves. Beyond this, there is little assurance.
Given what the Gospel has to say about peace from God, the Church ought to have much to say that is affirming and encouraging for those who are mentally unwell. However, there are two traps we may fall into. The effects of Greek philosophy on modern life continue to prevail, allowing us to draw a false distinction between mind and body, as if they were not part of the same whole. Much of the Church’s liturgy – formal and informal – expresses this concept, meaning we do not see just how physical the issue of mental health really is. The other trap is the stigma which attaches to those who are not on top of things given they have God on their side. This is a particular threat in churches which expect believers not only to be more than conquerors in Christ, but always to look and feel like it as well. Language, posture and narrative are crafted in a way which gives those who are struggling, little room to express their difficulties without appearing faithless. This may be a caricature, but there is enough truth in it to inhibit authentic faith.
It is a worthwhile experiment to use mental health as a prism through which to view the great stories of scripture. Once we do, we find challenges everywhere. Joseph languished hopelessly in a foreign prison; Moses despaired of his people; Elijah lost the will to live; Jeremiah wished he had never been born; Jonah was happy to drown, Paul felt crushed and broken; we could go on. God’s care for the broken-hearted is unimpeachable; the Church should follow suit, starting with its teaching.
Through A Glass Starkly
Images of traumatic incidents caught on mobile phone can be put to remarkable effect.