Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast. If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,” even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you. For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well. Psalm 139:7-14
This selection of verses from Psalm 139 underscores the need for congregations to engage in conversation around mental health and mental illness. The psalmist clearly states that there is no place we can go where God is not already there – externally and internally. God is present when we are filled with hope and when we are mired in despair. God accompanies us in the heights of mania and depths of depression. God bears witness to our wholeness and to the fractures in our psyche. There is no human condition outside of God’s reach. Every human being is “fearfully and wonderfully made.” There is no exception, and it is time that the church stop acting like there is.
Mental illness has long been a taboo conversation in Christian churches of every variety. This is mostly due to unexamined, archaic theology. The traditional church view on mental illness ranges from demon possession to punishment for sin to character flaws and lack of faith. None of this is true any more than cancer, heart disease, or diabetes is caused by these things. Mental illness is brain disease that can be caused by genetics, trauma, or brain injury among other things. It is biological and has nothing to do with demons, sin, or faith. God is not the cause of mental illness. In fact, mental illness knows no bounds. Everyone is vulnerable and no one is protected by race, gender, economics, education, ability, or faith. Our bodies and our brains are fragile and finite. In fact one in five adults in the U.S. experience a mental illness each year.
This is why it is essential that congregations engage in conversation on mental illness and mental health, especially in this time of pandemic. Church can be a place of healing or a place of hurt. The more we continue to avoid the conversation on mental illness, the more we contribute to suffering and, possibly, death of those who live with mental health conditions. Jesus was all about saving lives and re-membering (literally reconnecting) people to community. Community of support and acceptance promotes wellness and recovery. Church can become this for those who have often been unwelcomed and unseen. Breaking the silence and ending the stigma surrounding mental illness allows for people to be re-membered and find a place in a community that names them beloved.
May is mental health awareness month. Now is an excellent time to plan for your congregation to join the conversation and save lives. It isn’t as difficult as you might think. There are resources to help get you started. The United Church of Christ Mental Health Network is an excellent source of information for congregations of any denomination. You don’t need to be UCC to begin the WISE process, the process to become W elcoming, I nclusive, E ngaged, and S upportive for persons living with mental health challenges. Use the resources to start a conversation in your congregation so that your church may become a safe, lifesaving, and healing place.
There are many ways to begin. The easiest is to include mental health conditions in the prayers of the church. Offering educational opportunities and, eventually, inviting people to share their stories are great ways to engage in the conversation around mental illness. We are all touched by mental health conditions – either we ourselves or someone we love. The church can no longer afford to remain silent. Please begin this conversation so that the Body of Christ continues to embody the Love, Hope, and Healing Jesus lived and taught.