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November 2020 Credo

One of Paul’s injunctions concerning the responsibility of Christians towards one another—familiar to many Christians, I am sure—is found in Galatians 6:2, where he writes: “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ.” However, familiarity with this command is one thing; applying it effectually to our common life as members of Christ’s body is quite another matter!

This is especially the case when it comes to members of our community who are plagued with mental health problems. What is even more disconcerting is the fact that the Church is often not only guilty of neglecting such persons, but also complicit in their stigmatisation and marginalisation.

Reflecting on this phenomenon, Amy Simpson observes that churches and their pastors are sometimes “looking to enjoy ministering only to people they most identify with”. She adds, “even though the church does not exist for our comfort, many people opt for the easiest solution: tolerating only what they’re comfortable with”.

It is probably not an exaggeration to say that the only thing that is worse than suffering from mental illness is to endure the stigmatisation that often accompanies it. Stigmatisation robs its victims of not only their dignity, but also their humanity.

As John Swinton puts it: “The lives of people with mental health problems have been problematised, caricatured, and stigmatised to such an extent that the fact that they are real persons who are fully human in every respect is frequently forgotten.”

The Church must never be a place where discriminatory and dehumanising attitudes toward people with mental health conditions are allowed to prevail. Instead, as the community of broken people who are recipients of the transforming love of God in Christ, the Church should extend this love to all of its members, especially the weakest among them (1 Cor 12:22).

People with mental health problems need, above all, a community that would love and support them unconditionally, a community to which they feel they genuinely belong and are accepted. In a word, people with mental illness need sustaining relationships.

Special efforts must be made by members of the community to embrace them and to show them that they are remembered, valued and loved. This is because mental illness often affects the social functioning of the people afflicted by it, making it difficult for them to sustain a social network (especially with people who are not their immediate caregivers).

Exceptional forbearance is needed in journeying with people with mental illness because of the episodic nature of the condition. As Kathyrn Greene–McCreight notes: “Friendship is very important for those with poor mental health, but it is very hard to be a true friend to someone in such a condition.”

The people who reach out to them and care for them are often required to make many adjustments. This calls for extraordinary patience, not just on the part of their caregivers, but also on the part of the whole community.

But, as a redemptive community that is itself the sacrament of God’s saving and healing grace, the Church must demonstrate the patient love that the Holy Spirit has made possible. The Pauline injunction to bear each other’s burdens must be undergirded by this uncommon and generous love (agape) that reflects God’s very own love for us.

To do this, however, there must be a paradigmatic shift in the way in which the Church approaches people with mental health problems. It must avoid what Amy Simpson has called the “antibiotic-like expectations for mental health treatment”. She explains: “When churches have antibiotic-like expectations for mental health treatment, they communicate, ‘go get treated, then you come back and you can be a growing Christian with us’.”

In addition, the Church must never pretend to have all the answers. Instead, she should, by the grace of God, strive to be a hospitable community where the mentally ill feel that they are welcomed, not ostracised; loved, not shunned; and valued, not stigmatised.

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