March 2020 Feature
As a practicing psychologist in Singapore, I have had the privilege of working with Christians in recovery from trauma, adverse childhood experiences, and a wide range of interpersonal challenges for more than two decades. These come, often as a last resort to seek professional help, presenting with symptoms of depression, anxiety and often, deep longings for healing and for heaven.
The greater tragedy however, isn’t that some don’t experience complete recovery, but that they are met by a host of well-meaning persons in the Church who make their suffering more isolated than necessary. I have personally heard a pastor conclude: “If Christians appropriate the truths of Scripture, there would be no need for full-time counselors in the Church.” Another more humble Christian leader remarked: “Christians active in service can still be depressed?”
These statements reveal little understanding about the true nature of mental conditions. A humbler perspective to adopt is to recognize that a combination of factors involving both nature and nurture can enter into the development of mental disorders. Just physically speaking, chemical imbalance in the brain, hormonal changes in our glandular system, genetic predisposition and the use of illicit drugs can contribute to the development of mental illness. In our broken world, the experience of trauma, abuse, neglect, or violence, especially by persons we were meant to trust such as family members, result in profound afflictions with no simple answers. The real danger in the Church however, lies in the belief that we already understand all we need to know about why people suffer mental disorders, and the erroneous conclusion that practicing Christians should not suffer any mental afflictions. I wonder why this is so? Do Christians who appropriate the truths of the gospel not need a good dentist at some point in their lives? How about an undertaker?
Assumptions we carry about the nature of mental illness can severely limit how we respond to those who most need our understanding and patience. Mental disorders do not for the most part develop overnight. Some experience severe neglect and sexual abuse that are hidden for years because of shame and fears of rejection. Fears of being labeled or the inability to recognize symptoms result in many going untreated. Results of the latest Singapore Mental Health Study released in December 2018 reveal that fewer than 1 in 4 persons who experience mental disorders seek professional help. We know that emotional healing takes place in the context of safe relationships. However many Christians suffering depression and other mental disorders still feel they need to hide their afflictions for fear of judgment from believers who may deem them to be of weak will or insufficient faith. Indeed, in his reflections on the Church’s attitude towards mental illness in Singapore, Dr. Roland Chia observed: “stigma against people with mental illness does not just take place in society. It is sadly also evident in the Church. One of the reasons why there’s stigma against people with mental disorders in the Church is bad theology. Some Christians think that it is impossible for the follower of Christ to be plagued by mental conditions such as depression and bipolar disorder. This is in part due to their failure to fully appreciate what it means to live in the fallen world, a world that is in need of God’s Shalom.” Darkness Has Become My Companion (Ethos, June 8, 2019)
LEANING IN TO LISTEN AND LEARN
Rather we need a theology that fully incorporates the redeemed living in the present world. Scripture doesn’t hide human suffering but demonstrates repeatedly, God’s response to his people. We have the example of Jeremiah, known as the “weeping prophet” whose ministry was during Judah’s decay as a nation. He was anything but weak as he persevered in communicating God’s truth. Lamentations and large portions of the book Psalms express the depth of human emotions when enduring suffering and injustice. They give us hope that God in his mercy and faithfulness is able restore all broken relationships with him.
Therefore, instead of liberally dispensing prescriptions of more truth or more faith, people suffering mental distress should be met with understanding and companionship. Like the friends of Job in the Old Testament, perhaps the most effective support will be the one who keeps silent while in the company of the afflicted. What we need in our Churches is the courage to lean in and listen, so that we can learn more about the nature of the other’s suffering, rather than judge his or her faith and inadequacies. Some endure long roads in recovery as a result of other’s sins, inflicted upon them from early childhood. We communicate impatience with their efforts in recovery when we expect them to overcome their problems in ways that meet our own standards without having lived a single day of their lives. If we have never been betrayed, neglected nor abused by a caregiver, nor raised by an alcoholic parent, perhaps we should not be quick to judge those who have to mourn the loss of security, love and belonging that many take for granted.
On the contrary, consider the opportunities for faith development that are presented by someone who seeks refuge in the Church. A common finding in the history of persons with mental disorders is the experience of significant relational failures or trauma in their families of origin or with early caregivers. That they have the courage to continue seeking refuge in other relationships later in life is a statement of desperation or incredible courage and sometimes, both. If depressed and anxious persons express their needs in the Church, should not the people of God extend safe spaces for such to re-experience trust? When someone in the congregation coughs or sneezes, we respond empathically with a fresh packet of tissue or something to soothe the throat. Would that, persons among us with depression and anxiety be similarly accepted, rather than have symptoms dismissed and concerns invalidated.
Thankfully, signs of progress can be seen among some churches in Singapore with a recent conference on “The Church and Mental Wholeness” co-organized by Yio Chu Kang Chapel and Graceworks in September 2019. Clergy with personal experiences of mental disorders are most able to recognize that depression and anxiety can be normal reactions to abnormal life stressors. Whether we have personal experience with a mental condition, may the bride of Christ be a people of hope who extend to one another warm presence as representatives of our God who is with us and has already determined our final and eternal destination.
Dr. Eliza Lian-Ding practices as a Counselling Psychologist at KALL Psychological and Counseling Services in Singapore. She received her doctoral training at Georgia State University while completing her internship at Fuller Theological Seminary. She provides supervision to counsellors-in-training at Singapore Bible College and guest lectures at Trinity Theological College on Marriage and Family.