Do you know that one in seven Singaporeans has experienced a mental disorder in their lifetime (Singapore Mental Health Study, 2016)? In 2010, the statistic was one in every eight Singaporeans.
Opening up the conversation
The recently published Good News for Bruised Reeds – Mental Health and the Gospel Community by Graceworks is a stride in the right direction.
“The Church needs to learn to respond well to this reality, not just because mental illness is already the lived experience of many church members, but also since the inclusive call of Jesus’ gospel extends to people with mental illnesses,” writes Mr Leow Wen Pin in the forward (‘Changing Our Minds: A Theological Introduction to Mental Illness’).
Director of Graceworks, Dr Tan Soo-Inn, suffered from depression for a period in his life. He shared that a key aspect in restoring mental wholeness is related to how well people are connected relationally.
Bridging the gap
Speaking at Cru Singapore’s Tuesday Talks about his own journey back to mental wellness and lessons learnt, Dr Tan shared about the interconnectedness of our mind, body and spirit.
1 Thessalonian 5:23, “may your spirit and soul and body be kept complete” (Amplified Bible), paints a picture of a whole person. In this holistic framework, mental health cannot be looked at in isolation. Dr Tan explains, “When one area experiences dysfunction, other areas will be affected.”
1) The right perception of mental health & illness
In Mental Health and the Gospel Community, Mr Leow shares two flawed ways that Christian circles understand mental illness: I) that it is brought on by demonic possession, or II) it is associated with sin or lack of faith.
He corrects this, saying, “Mental illness…can have many causes: an individual’s life choices, their fallen biology, unfortunate circumstances, alienating communities and social structures, or even a combination thereof.”
With this as the basis to our understanding, registered counselor, Ms. Pamela Koh, adds, “when we see fellow believers going through difficulties, understand that it is part of the sanctification process that God has for us. It is part of the individual’s life journey of God revealing Himself more to us.”
Though well-meaning, perhaps the most hurtful things to hear are from fellow Christians who try to slap on a spiritual solution like, pray more, have more faith, trust God more. Remarks like this blame the person who is already suffering—causing them more hurt, heaping on more stigma, pushing them away.
2) The right perception of professional help
“If there is no stigma for seeing a doctor or surgeon, why should there be stigma in seeing a psychologist or psychiatrist? It is similarly recognising our brokenness, and getting the help we need,” Dr Tan states.
The same Singapore Mental Health Study in 2016 found that more than 80% who had a mental illness did not seek help. Termed the “treatment gap”, it shows that stigma attached to mental illness continues to hinder people from seeking the help they need.
Dr Tan also makes clear that different types of mental illness are also different. “There is no spiritual or medical silver bullet that can cure a person of mental illness effectively and quickly. Each person and each condition are different.
“What we need to be wary of is a one-size-fits-all approach that assumes all cases of mental illness can be easily healed with the usual spiritual disciplines.”
Drawing from the holistic framework, there should likewise be a holistic response in dealing with mental illness. A concurrent healing of the spiritual (through practicing spiritual disciplines like prayer and worship), physical (whether through seeing a professional, medicine, or a mixture of both), as well as relational (staying in community and being able to share openly).
Our response: love as Jesus did
What is our responsibility as the Church? Simply be a safe space for our wounded brothers and sisters by loving them well.
Using 1 Kings 19 as a framework, Dr Tan pulls out five principles on how the Church can respond to people who, like Elijah, are facing depression, burn out and/or entertaining suicidal thoughts:
a. Physically: “there was at his head a cake baked on hot stones and a jar of water. And he ate and drank and lay down again.” (v5-7)
Attend to their physical well-being first. Instead of jumping straight into a spiritual or medical fix, sometimes it’s could be helping in the simplest things—buying food over, caring for their kids, or taking over some household chores, so they can rest.
b. Emotionally: “and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.” (v10, 14)
God allowed Elijah to tell his story without refuting him. Likewise, we should simply listen and journey with them on their terms, in their time, as they walk towards wholeness. This might be most challenging for some of us as it accentuates our helplessness. But there is something powerful about genuinely hearing someone’s pain and accepting them as they are – allowing them to offload without trying to ‘fix’ or ‘correct’ them and just being present in their journey.
c. Spiritually: “And after the fire the sound of a low whisper” (v12)
At some point in the journey, a Christian can find spiritual restoration by going back to the Word of God. It does not mean that the emotional pain or mental illness will be taken away. Nonetheless, in wrestling with our Creator, we understand Him more and are able to trust Him even in the midst of darkness.
d. Relationally: “and Elisha the son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah you shall anoint to be prophet in your place.” (v17)
“It is the burden of Graceworks to see people following Christ in the company of friends. Loneliness has become too prevalent in our churches,” Dr Tan reflected. While it is important to study the Word of God and do good works, it is equally important too have a group of like-minded close friends that people can be authentic with.
Is there a community for you to pour out your pain and struggle to? And conversely, are you a friend who is available and listens non-judgmentally?
e. Vocationally: “And when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael to be king over Syria. And Jehu the son of Nimshi you shall anoint to be king over Israel” (v16-17)
God gave Elijah an assignment again—a sense of purpose is a big part of mental and emotional wellness. A clear direction in what one does with life gives him/her the resilience to face the negatives that may come.
Can the Church be a place for our brothers and sisters to be restored, and to recover this sense of purpose once again?
“As God’s people, this holistic approach to mental health is understanding how we need to strengthen each area because they all feed into each other,” Dr Tan concludes.
Let the Church be church
The Church has a responsibility to simply love and care for the individual. Even if it means listening to the same story multiple times, just sitting in silence, or even making sure they are eating. Even if we may never see the full restoration or understand why on this side of heaven.
You and I can be the Church that says, I will still walk with you; my sister, my brother.
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