Having stumbled upon this author and her running memoir on Twitter, I decided to take a chance on it. I am glad I did as I found myself identifying with it on many levels. First, I enjoyed reading about Nita Sweeney’s journey from non-runner to endurance athlete as it paralleled my own in many ways. Like me, she began with the Couch to 5k Program before progressing to longer distances. Like me, she shed some weight along the way and was an adult-onset athlete (a term I borrow from John Bingham). I enjoyed reading her story because in many ways it validates my own. I have a tendency to regret all the the years I spent as a non-runner. How fast could I be and how accomplished could I be if I had only started when I was younger? Sweeney’s story remind me however that I am a sample size of one. Being older and/or slower than others does not make me less of a runner!
Secondly, I enjoyed reading about the author’s running exploits in Columbus, Ohio. I live forty minutes from Ohio’s capital and was familiar with many of the places she described. I did find myself growing jealous when she wrote about the support and friendship’s she forged in the MIT running group. The running community in my little town is growing, but there is nothing like MIT where I live. That coupled with my own introverted tendencies has prevented me from feeling like I belong in the running community. Fortunately, I am blessed to have my wife to train with!
Finally, I appreciated how the author found running as a coping mechanism for her depression. Like all families, mine has been touched by depression and I have long argued that a trifold approach must be taken when dealing with mental illness; mental, spiritual, and physical. I firmly believe that any approach to mental illness that lacks one of the pillars is insufficient. Sweeney points out wisely that running didn’t “cure” her depression, however, there is no doubt it has allowed her to cope with it. What a great reminder!
I recommend this book for adult onset athletes, those battling with mental health, and anyone who enjoys a good running memoir.
A proper understanding of mental health as it is presented in the Bible must begin with the Doctrine of the Fall of Man. As the story unfolds, Satan, in the guise of a serpent, tricks Adam and Eve into eating the one fruit that was forbidden by God (Gen 3:1-6). It is through this act that sin entered the world and mankind has been afflicted with a sinful nature since. Charles Ryrie writes, “Every facet of man’s being is affected by this sin nature. His intellect is blinded. His mind is reprobate or disapproved. His understanding is darkened, separated from the life of God. His emotions are degraded and defiled” (Ryrie, 1986, p. 252). Because of this fallen state, mankind suffers from total depravity. In other words, our entire person is affected by our sinful nature – body, mind, and spirit. All illness, whether physical or mental, is a result of The Fall of Man. The Apostle Paul confirmed this when he wrote, “To the pure, all things are pure; but to those who are defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure, but both their mind and their conscious are defiled” (Titus 1:15, NASB). Because of sin, our minds are defiled.
The relationship between sin and mental health must be properly understood before there can be any hope in understanding our subject. While, in many (if not most) cases, it would be inappropriate to attribute a person’s specific mental illness with specific sins, it should be understood that all illness is ultimately the result of mankind’s sinful nature. Thus, there is a spiritual element to mental illness. To ignore this fact would be detrimental to everyone touched by mental illness. In fact, any treatment plan for mental illness that does not address spirituality falls woefully short. Daniel J. Simundson writes:
What can be fixed by human effort? Not all guilt can be removed by better therapy. No amount of treatment by doctors, drugs, electric shock, or group therapy can turn us into loving human beings who act only out of concern for the other. The effects of sin cannot be completely removed, though to a greater or lesser degree, they can be modified and their impact ameliorated (Simundson, 1989, p. 145).
The sinful nature of illness necessitates that salvation must be included somewhere in the discussion. Namely, if sin is to blame for the presence of mental illness in our fallen world, Christ must be offered as an essential element on the path to mental health. Simundon writes, “As Christians, we must include an eschatological hope in our discussion of mental health. What we really need is ‘salvation,’ something that reaches beyond the promises of this [fallen] world” (Simundson, 1989, p. 145). Of course, the “eschatological hope” Simundson writes of has a name – Jesus Christ.
Jesus is essential in our discussion of mental health. He is the ultimate healer. Scripture presents Christ as the face of salvation. Thus, if spirituality is to be included in a complete treatment plan for mental illness, a generic and general spirituality will not suffice. Those suffering from mental illness must be offered nothing less than Jesus Christ.
When Christ as offered on the path to mental health there is hope, healing, and forgiveness.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health Disorders, one out of every four adults suffers from a diagnosable mental health disorder. These disorders include major disorders such as clinical depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and obsessive-compulsive disorder, as well as; substance-abuse disorders and eating disorders. The statistics concerning mental health disorders in the United States are staggering. For example, in 2010, there were over 900,000 suicide attempts in the United States alone. Of those attempts, over 30,000 people successfully committed suicide (USA Suicide). While it might be assumed that statistics concerning mental health issues are less severe among Christians, a 2009 Christianity Today article suggests otherwise, “Studies of religious groups, from Orthodox Jews to evangelical Christians, reveal no evidence that the frequency of depression varies across religious groups … in a typical congregation of 200 adults, 50 attendees will experience depression at some point, and at least 30 are currently taking antidepressants” (Blazer). Ed Stetzer writes, “… people with mental illness are often attracted to religion and the church, either to receive help in a safe environment or live out the worst impulses of their mental illness [and] most churches, sadly, have few resources for help.” (Stetzer).
Even church leaders are not immune to the impact of mental health issues. In 2009, Frank Page, a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, lost his 33-year-old daughter Melissa to suicide (Smietana) and in April of this year, mega-church pastor and author Rick Warren’s son Mathew committed suicide after a prolonged battle with depression. The issue has become so prevalent that the Southern Baptist Convention recently approved a resolution offering support for those suffering from mental illness and their families (Barnhart). These statistics and prominent examples alone dictate that the Church should examine mental health issues closely and devise a plan of action. There is a mental health crisis in the United States that is impacting our church members and we must meet it head on. One should expect the church to respond to mental health issues in a way that starkly contrasts that of the secular world, however, that is not always the case.
Dale Fletcher offers three very significant reasons why mental health issues benefit from being examined on a spiritual level. First, Christianity can offer a person with a mental health diagnosis “a sense of purpose and meaning” (Fletcher). Secondly, Fletcher asserts the Bible can help a person who suffers from mental health issues understand that suffering (Fletcher). Finally, Christianity (specifically, the local church) offers a person with a mental health disorder a much-welcomed opportunity to “connect with others” (Fletcher). Ideally, in a proper church setting, one who suffers from mental illness could seek and receive love and grace without the stigma that is normally associated with psychological diseases.
Of course, the Bible is well suited to speak to the needs of those with mental health diseases, “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:16-17 NASB). As such, there is no aspect of our life that Scripture cannot address, “For the Word if God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12 NASB). If the Bible is believed, than it must be expected that it can speak volumes into the conditions of the mentally ill. One writer argues, “One thing people with [mental health disorders] need more than anything else is the hope that is in Jesus Christ. Even though their illness tries to steal their lives away, they can have an abundant life in Christ” (Houdmann).
The Bible can shed a great deal of light on mental health and the method by which the Church and individual Christians respond to the mental health crisis in our country. Just no life is complete apart from a life-saving relationship with Jesus Christ, no treatment plan for mental health is complete without addressing the Spirit – along with the Mind and Body. I believe the Church can meet a need in our culture by coming alongside mental health professionals and providing much needed support to the mentally ill.
Disclaimer: I am by no means a mental health professional and in this series of posts, I will be making no attempt to diagnose individuals or to supplant mental health treatment plans … that should be left to the professionals.
We live is a society plagued by mental health issues. Depression, anxiety, eating disorders, bipolar disorder, paranoia; the list of mental health issues that plague us, as a people, is nearly neverending. I suspect that in today’s western culture you would have to look far and wide to find a person whose life hasn’t been impacted in some way by mental illness.
Yet far too often, this is a topic ignored in our churches. Those of us who suffer are reluctant at times to even ask for prayer because of the undeniable stigma attached. This is unfortunate because the Church should be a place where those seeking relief and support for mental health disorders can find it.
Christ said that He came so that His sheep could have life and have it abundantly (John 10:10). I am convinced that a life-saving relationship with Christ should speak volumes into the existence of those who suffer from depression (or other disorders). Certainly, a life lived prisoner to a mental health disorder is far different than the abundant life Jesus spoke of.
In light of this I’ve decided to begin a series of posts on this blog examining mental health from a Biblical perspective. What does the Bible say about mental health? Does it shed any light on the subject? How should the local church as well as the global Church respond? I believe there is a great need for the church to move this subject from the darkness of stigma into the light of Christ and that’s what I hope to do as I move forward with this series of posts.
This is a subject that is near and dear to me … my prayer is that anyone who reads this upcoming series and is impacted in some way by a mental health disorder will find comfort and relief in Christ.