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Light for a Dark Path

People who live with mental illness are all around us. Yet they often suffer alone.

John Nash is one of the most gifted mathematicians of our lifetime. As a student at Princeton he wowed everyone with his genius. In 1994 he was awarded the highest honor in the field of economics: the Nobel Prize. John Nash is a brilliant man. John Nash also struggles with mental illness.

The Academy Award-winning movie A Beautiful Mind, released in 2001, poignantly showed both Nash’s mathematical genius and his fight against schizophrenia, which profoundly affected his life. The film put the issue of mental illness in the social spotlight, for a moment at least. It also put a human face on an issue that we would prefer not to talk about, let alone see—even in the church.

But followers of Jesus must recognize that mental illness isn’t, and shouldn’t be, far away from us. It isn’t limited to the distant halls of Princeton University and Nobel Prize winners, to brilliant people who struggle with that fine line between genius and madness. And it isn’t limited to the other extreme, to the many people who so struggle with mental illness that they can’t cope with society and end up living on the street. Mental illness isn’t far away. It is right here among us, maybe even within us.

More Common than We Admit

None of us has a perfectly healthy body. Some of us are seriously ill with weak hearts or failing backs. Others of us just aren’t as healthy as we could be—we’ve got a cold we can’t shake, our cholesterol is a little too high, or we’ve got a knee that acts up every time a storm is on the horizon. Similarly, none of us has a perfectly healthy mind. One Christian doctor writes, “Most people look at mental illness differently than physical illness. They tend to believe that mental illness is due to a character flaw or moral weakness. It’s important to recognize that the brain is an organ that is vulnerable to diseases just as any other organ of the body is vulnerable to diseases.”

Mental illness is more common than we’d like to admit. In any given year, 20 percent of adults suffer from a diagnosable mental illness, and 6 percent suffer from a serious mental illness. Of the 100,000 homes that receive this magazine, about 20,000 will have someone suffering from a diagnosable mental illness, and about 6,000 will have someone with serious mental illness this year.

We like to think that Christian communities are somehow exempt. They aren’t.

Mental illness is painfully real for many of you reading this article right now. My guess is that none of our lives is untouched by this issue. My own family has had to deal with dementia, Alzheimer’s, panic attacks, and suicidal depression. And I think my family is pretty healthy.

Mental illness is a reality in our communities; however, many of us would just rather ignore it. But if anyone should be talking about mental illness, the church should be. If any place in the world should be a safe place where people can find encouragement and support and compassion for their hurts—both physical and mental—the church should be that place. Most often we have responded out of ignorance and fear. We haven’t been a safe place for people to share their struggles with mental illness. We haven’t been understanding and compassionate and loving and nonjudgmental. We haven’t been patient.

We don’t know how to respond.

If someone has cancer, we know what to do—we bring meals and mow lawns and send cards. Cancer is a “casserole illness.” Mental illness is not. We don’t know what to do for someone who is severely depressed or who has bipolar tendencies or early-onset Alzheimer’s. So we often end up doing nothing.

A Community of Love

That isn’t the kind of community God has called us to be. In Romans 12 Paul lays out clearly how God calls us to live together in love.

We are to be devoted to each other. We are to patiently love each other. We are to share ourselves with those in need. And we are to empathize with each other—to experience joy and hurt with each other. How do we do that as a community of Jesus Christ with people who are deeply hurting mentally?

We can begin by accepting mental illness as a reality in our families and in our community. The more we learn about it and understand it, the less we will fear it and the better we will know how to love as Jesus called us to love.

We need to understand that people with mental illness are not able to heal themselves, just as people with diabetes are not able to heal themselves. Someone struggling with depression can’t just “snap out of it” and make the choice to be happy. Someone who has been diagnosed with ADD or ADHD can’t just “sit still and concentrate.” Someone with obsessive-compulsive behavior can’t just will himself to stop.

Eighty-five percent of people who have a functional brain illness will get better. We don’t always know how the healing occurs, but it does. We need to understand that medication doesn’t cure the illness; it only relieves the symptoms. And we need to understand that this isn’t an “us-them” issue; it’s an “us” issue. Each one of us is affected. Not one of us is perfectly healthy (and to think we are is proof that we aren’t). Some of us struggle more than others, but we need to understand that we are in this together.

When we begin to understand the truth about mental illness, we will begin to empathize instead of judge. I asked my family member who struggled with   suicidal depression to tell me her story so I could better understand her struggle. Her story gave me a glimpse into the stigma and shame that our society and our Christian community place on those with mental illness. I understand better the pain that our ignorant comments can inflict. I felt with her how difficult it was to make that first call for help. I understand better why mental illness usually isolates individuals and families so they suffer alone while watching people with physical illnesses get meals and cards and prayers.

I also began to understand the spiritual repercussions of the disease. For many people, mental illness isolates them from God. Some wrestle with truth and faith. Some question God. Some lose contact with God.

Psalm 139 is one of the most comforting psalms in the Bible and a favorite of many. It speaks of God’s presence and personal care for each one of us. But what would your faith be like if your mind raged against each of this psalm’s assurances? What if your mind told you that God didn’t know you? What if you felt like you had outrun the Spirit of God? What if your mind told you that the darkness you were in was outside God’s reach? What if when you awoke you couldn’t believe you were still with God?

God has called us to be a community of compassion through which God can bring love and care to his hurting children. God doesn’t call us to be a community of judgment—the world around us does enough of that. And God doesn’t call us to be a community of technical cures—God often does that work through medical professionals and medication.

God calls us to be compassionate, to imitate Jesus.

When he saw hurting people, Jesus hurt along with them. “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matt. 9:36). When Jesus “saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick” (14:14). While teaching on the mountainside Jesus said, “I have compassion for these people; they have already been with me three days and have nothing to eat” (15:32). When Jesus met two blind men outside Jericho he “had compassion on them and touched their eyes. Immediately they received their sight and followed him” (Matt. 20:34).

Jesus lived with compassion. He hurt with those who were hurting.

And now Jesus calls us to be communities of compassion. In 2 Corinthians 1 God commands us to comfort each other with the comfort that God himself has given us (vv. 3-4). We see the exact same command in Philippians 2:1-2, Colossians 3:12, and Ephesians 4:32. We must be communities of compassion where even those with mental illness—especially those with mental illness—can experience the love of God.

Four Compassionate Responses

How can we become communities of compassion? The answer to that question is a conversation we must continue to have with each other. Let me share four ways to begin.

First, we must maintain each other’s dignity. We must define each other at our most basic and greatest value: we are all loved children of God. That definition affords us dignity and respect no matter what our condition may be—even if our illness prevents us from giving ourselves that dignity and respect.

We must also learn as individuals and as communities to listen in love without judging or condemning or gossiping. We must be safe places where we can hurt together and know that we are loved.

We must also be ready to offer practical help to those who are hurting mentally, along with their families, just as we minister to those who are hurting physically. We must serve them, their families, their children, and their spouses in love. Jesus’ compassion always led to action. Ours must as well.

Finally, maybe the greatest thing we can and must do is talk to Jesus for and with people who deal with mental illness. Pray for them—they themselves might not be able to. Compassionately speak the truth of Jesus’ love that they might not be able to feel. Share that love in Jesus’ name so Jesus may be present with them through you.

What’s Next?

I don’t expect one article to completely change our culture or our communities. I do hope it will start the conversations that need to happen. If nothing else, I hope this article does three things. I hope that those of you who haven’t experienced the pain of mental illness will begin to understand it a little better so that as individuals and as the community of Jesus Christ we can begin to respond with love and compassion. I hope that those of you who are hurting right now know, maybe for the first time, that you are not alone. There are people right in your own churches hurting along with you. And for those of you who haven’t yet dared to ask for help, I hope you know that help is available and you can move toward healing.

If any of those things happens, God has worked. If more than that should happen—if our communities begin to become safe places where everyone can find love and compassion no matter their hurt—God has worked in a mighty way!  

Help, My Dad’s Depressed

I am 16 years old. Downstairs on the living room couch my dad is sprawled, sleeping, oblivious to the chaos he’s caused. Years of my life lie in tatters, torn to pieces by the strain of living with this ticking time bomb.

“Sweetheart, Dad has depression. He’s . . .”

 “I know, Mom. Dad just doesn’t care about us.”

Hands clenching, I remember days that started out much like  this one but ended much worse. Anger and fear boil up. I recall the day a police officer calmed down my dad from a fit of vicious rage. Dad left us that day by ambulance, only to return weeks later. Another time a stretcher took him he was full of enough drugs to stop his heart.

A voice interrupts my thoughts.

“Honey, I have to go to practice at the church. Want to come or stay home?”

“Don’t leave, Mom. I’m coming!” Nearly frantic at the thought of being left home alone with my father, I dive for books, pens, and paper. “I’m coming! Don’t leave!”

As we turn into the big asphalt parking lot, I stare at the brick church building. It stands as a reminder to me that God cares, that he’s faithful. Inside its hard exterior is a loving family, one I can depend on. They give me a reason to go on. My own family reminds me of those dinosaur skeletons at the museum—dead and helpless.

We make our way into the peaceful sanctuary. As I sit in a pew near the front, I stare at a wooden emblem of two hands reaching up to a cross. It reminds me of myself.

I open my books and begin studying.

CREAK. Looking up just in time, I see our pastor come into the sanctuary and motion to Mom. My senses fill with a familiar dread. I can almost see the black cloud hanging over the pastor’s head. But after talking for what seems like forever, Mom walks back to her practice. Everything is all right, I tell myself. I’m just suffering from pre?exam stress. Robotically, I begin writing down answers again.


Nearly falling off the pew, I try to calm my heart rate.

“Ya, Mom?” I gain back some of my breath.

“Dad just called and told Pastor Dave that he tried to hang himself and needs help.”

I choose to walk home later. Alone. Full of trepidation I arrive to find the door locked. Piercing my wandering, now worried thoughts, our phone begins to ring. Jumping to action, I run for the spare key, knowing somehow that this call is important. Through the open window I hear the answering machine click on.

“Honey, this is Mom. I’m at the hospital with Dad.”

Slowly my body grinds into movement, sliding the key into the lock. I open the door and, walking around the corner, stop dead in my tracks. A tie, ripped, lies on the coffee table, occupying the spot beside the phone. Evidence of attempted suicide. Cold sweat breaks out. Breathing becomes difficult. My cheeks are wet. Overwhelmed, I drop to my knees and sob, “God, help!”

—Name Withheld

My Journey into the Dark

I can’t.

I’m done.

It’s dark.

Terrified. . . . So afraid to step into the light.

Don’t tell me that fear involves risk. Heard it.

Don’t tell me to explain my perception of light. In no mood.

Cynical? Oh yeah.

Skeptical? You bet.

Angry? Raging.

Desolate? It’s dark, painfully dark.

My heart aches.

I wrote those words to my pastor from an adult psych ward.

September 21, 2007, I walked into a local emergency room after struggling with depression for two years. I was done. I spent the day in a quiet, dark room, curled up in a chair while waiting for a member of the crisis team to assess me.

I wanted to die. Thoughts of oncoming gravel trucks filled my mind.

I was admitted to the hospital. I remember asking my sister-in-law, “How do I go home?”

I was done. Little did I know that my descent into the dark was only beginning.

Depression is a brutal illness. Imagine forsaking all you hold dear. I walked away from my husband, my children, my home, the activities surrounding it, the love intertwined through it, the security I felt within. It felt foreign. I knew no way to return.

After a week in the hospital I was admitted to a psychiatric facility. I truly admire those who choose to do that. It takes raw courage. I bolted after six hours. So what now?

My parents graciously took me into their home—a safe place to rest. But we all knew the issue of my illness was not being addressed. After eight weeks, in a fit of anger I packed up and went home. This time my thoughts were on leaving a note for my family and starting  the van in the garage.

One week later I was back in the emergency room. This time I was certified; I had no choice. Either I would show up at the psych ward or the police would haul me there. I was slipping further into an angry, intense dark. My thoughts screamed, “Why can’t I fix this?!”

I spent six weeks behind locked doors. My routine consisted of a daily visit with the psychiatrist, a cocktail of medications, and compulsory group therapy.

My comfort came from the other patients. There was no pretense—we were all broken. We shared our meals, conversations, stories. We were a community, a family of sorts. I was safe behind closed doors, safe from my agony, from myself.

By January I went home. I was well—or so I thought. This time my thoughts were on my pills, on playing Russian roulette with them. Which ones shall I swallow? How many? I was sinking deeper. How far, Lord, will I sink? Enough already.

I was readmitted on February 2. I spent hours curled up in my bed, reciting the song “I Lift My Eyes Up” (Ps. 121)—“so I will wait for you to come and rescue me, come and give me life.” But that was interspersed with, “Where are you, Lord? Where are you? I cannot see you; it’s so dark. Help me, Lord. Help me.”

My daily visits with the doctor became angry battles where I would spit at him: “Don’t tell me to try!” or “Don’t tell me it will be OK. If it were OK, I wouldn’t be here!”

After two more weeks he sent me home with stronger medication. I felt hopeless.

I wanted to die.

Suicide consumed my thoughts, eating away the rational, the logical. I was filled with rage. I hated who I was. I would wear dresses in a sad attempt to cover the ugliness. Living with myself was extremely frustrating. I wanted to crawl out of my own skin.

Intensive daily group therapy was brutal. We discussed the frustration of living with a misunderstood illness. Maybe we should wear bandages on our heads, we thought, so we would look as sick as we felt. I thought the therapists were annoyingly positive, the clichés sickening.

Every day I woke up wanting to end it. Family would constantly remind me of all that I had, but I couldn’t see the blessings for the dark.

My comfort came in knowing I was not alone. Every day I met with others who traveled a similar path. Alcoholics, drug addicts, those dealing with chronic anxiety disorders and debilitating diseases as well as depression.

We sat huddled together, listening, cheering each other on, comforting, listening more. In those long hours I obtained the coping skills to live with this illness.

Along with therapy I visited with my pastor on a regular basis. Through our conversations I renewed a tentative relationship with my Lord and Savior. I now know God was present in the dark. God taught me to see beyond the brokenness. I have great respect for the addict who has been sober for a week—I now understand how difficult that is. I now know that everyone carries his or her own stories, all of which deserve to be heard. I am grateful to my church community for their many prayers; I believe they held me up. And I now know God forgives. “All who call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” God holds the broken ones in the palm of his hand. There is no better place to be.

I still deal with depression. It sneaks in when I am tired or when life becomes overwhelming. I am not always comfortable in my own home, and I deal with anxiety on a daily basis.

But I have been given much. I treasure color: oranges, yellows, blues, greens. I treasure my bright orange bowls and green spatulas. I send myself colorful cards full of words of encouragement to open on bad days. I buy myself bouquets of bright flowers. I still wear dresses, not to hide the ugliness but to enjoy their feel. And every morning I wrap myself in a warm cotton sweater and enjoy a walk with my dog through the trees. And if the wind is in the trees, I can feel the breath of God settling into me. He is there.

Update: I was recently released from a nine-day hospital stay. I no longer feel God’s breath in the trees. Just now and then a whisper.

Angie Salomons is a member of Woodynook CRC, Lacombe, Alberta.

Gifted and Bipolar

Recently I was hospitalized for bipolar disorder. My medication was being adjusted. I know the importance of taking my medication. I know I need it. But I had stopped taking it. It’s hard for me to understand why. It’s hard for me to explain. And my friends and loved ones are afraid that I will stop again. But I promised the Lord I wouldn’t stop. I meant it, and God will hold me to it.

In Pine Rest I saw an informative video. It was about people who have bipolar disorder and their experiences. They talked about their highs and lows. Some of them are very successful in business and art. Some are musicians and newscasters. (There have even been presidents with the illness.) They talked about medication and treatment for their illness. They talked about how some of their best achievements were when they were high. Some said that they didn’t want to come down from the high. But then when the lows occurred, it felt like they wouldn’t come out of it.

When I was at Pine Rest I recognized that I had a lot of stored up anger that I needed to release. I couldn’t deny my anger. But I had thought of myself as being calm and collected. I began learning how to deal with stress.

At the same time I was being treated, God used me to make a difference in the lives of the other women in the unit.

And God used my experiences to strengthen my own faith. My relationship with him is much better. I believe God has a purpose for everything and for my life. I want to serve God in the capacity he wants me to for his glory.

So what is your view of me and others like me? Do we have room in your heart and church? Is there a place for us to use our gifts and talents? How will you treat me and all of us with mental illness? I hope you will receive us with love and compassion, as Jesus would.

—Verna Haverhals is a member of
Oakdale Park Christian Reformed Church,
Grand Rapids, Mich.

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