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October 2016 Pulse

In an article entitled, ‘Let’s End Stigma of Mental Illness’ published by TODAY online on 1 May 2014, it was reported that one in six people in Singapore suffer from some form of mental illness. ‘It is quite likely’, it states, ‘that patients include our friends, colleagues or family members’.

According to the American Psychiatric Association, ‘A mental disorder is a syndrome characterized by clinically significant disturbance in an individual’s cognition, emotion regulation, or behaviour that reflects a dysfunction in the psychological, biological, or developmental processes underlying mental function’.

Elaborating on this basic definition, The Mayo Clinic states that ‘[m]ental illness refers to a wide range of mental conditions – disorders that affect your mood, thinking and behaviour’. It adds that ‘Many people have mental health concerns from time to time. But a mental health concern becomes a mental illness when ongoing signs and symptoms cause frequent stress and affect your ability to function’.

Although some forms of mental illness are not reckoned as a disability by the law, there can be no doubt that all forms of mental illness are in some sense disabling.

The TODAY article points out that although mental illness is not uncommon in our society it is ‘still stigmatised by prejudice, ignorance and fear’. It emphatically calls for putting such stigmatisation to a decisive end.

Christians should without qualification echo this call because we believe that all human beings – including those who are suffering from mental illness – are created in the image and likeness of God, and must therefore be valued and respected. To stigmatise or discriminate against people living with mental illness is to violate the dignity that God has given to them as bearers of his image.

However, some Christians may espouse a different view because they locate the divine image in the mental faculty of the human being. Such a view, if taken to its logical conclusion, would deem the mentally ill as possessing a compromised humanity that could no longer reflect the divine image.

This view, however, is unacceptable because it works with a defective understanding of what it means to be human.

In his 1996 address entitled, ‘The Image of God in People with Mental Illness’ Pope John Paul II deals with this issue directly by exposing the reductionism of those who privilege mental abilities in their understanding of the human being. ‘It should be made clear’, he writes, ‘that the whole man, not just his spiritual soul, including his intelligence and free will, but also his body shares in the dignity of “the image of God”’.

Thus, John Paul II states categorically that ‘whoever suffers from mental illness “always” bears God’s image and likeness in himself, as does every human being’. This means that ‘he “always” has the inalienable right not only to be considered as an image of God and therefore as a person, but also treated as such’.

The other question that often arises when Christians reflect on mental illness is that of sin. Could mental illness be the consequence of the sin of the person who suffers from it?

Here, it is extremely important to understand the fact that mental illness is often the result of a very complex confluence of factors. These not only have to do with physical and biological factors like brain chemistry and inherited traits. They also include environmental or circumstantial factors such as abuse, trauma, warfare and even poverty.

Instead of attributing mental illness to the sin of the sufferer, Christians should see it as an instance of the brokenness and tragedy of the fallen condition that all of us share. Mental illness is one of the many signs that the world we now inhabit is not the world that God had intended when he created it.

What about the relationship between metal illness and demon possession? Although sometimes the person who is mentally ill may exhibit the same ‘symptoms’ as someone who is suffering from demonic subjugation, the two must never be confused. Here is where the Christian psychiatrist and the discerning pastor or minister must work closely together.

The church must therefore be a place where hospitality is extended to people living with mental illness. It should be a place where the hurtful and ostracising stigmatisation that is prevalent in society of people who are mentally ill is consciously and conscientiously rejected.

Such generous hospitality would address some of the most damaging discriminations and injustices that people suffering from mental illness sometimes have to endure. It would address the alienation that the mentally ill sometimes experience because of social ostracism, an alienation that might lead to a tragic lost of dignity.

The church must be a place where the mentally ill are valued, cared for and loved. It must be a place where the family members and caregivers of people who are living with mental illness can receive support and encouragement. And the church should always be a place where they are constantly reminded of their hope in a loving, faithful and unchanging God.

Finally, Christians must not only minister to people with mental illness or who are in recovery. They must also be open to being ministered to by them.

As a document on mental illness and the church prepared by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has so beautifully put it: ‘The church can be a powerful and welcoming place for people who are in recovery and experiencing healing, as they return to tell their stories of hope. The church can be a locus for proclaiming the good news of healing of body and relationships, not just to people living with mental illness, but from people living with mental illness’.

Roland Chia (suit)_Large
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.