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How should Christians view mental distress?

anxiety 400CFRegular columnist John Myhill challenges the way Christians should view those who are seen to have a mental illness.

I have just attended a Quaker gathering in London considering mental distress in Quaker Meetings, and realise that each of your churches must have a similar process going on.  I really would like to hear from those of you involved in responding to mental health problems in your churches, as this is a growing issue for all of us, as services and benefits are cut.
The idea of mental “illness” assumes that a loss of rationality is involved.  But is rationality any proof of “wellness”?

  • The “final solution” worked out by the Third Reich was put into operation with extreme rationality.
  • Bringing the war with Japan to an end rapidly by using atomic bombs, was a rational decision, which may well have reduced the numbers who would have been killed had the war continued.

Given any particular objective, Rationality claims to offer the most effective way of achieving that objective; but if people do not want that objective it would be irrational of them to act in ways to bring it about.
Rationalisation is often confused with rationality.  Rationalisation allows people to hide the real reasons for their actions behind a more acceptable explanation, which others are likely to see as more rational.  Most of us do this from time to time, but it is a symptom of what psychiatry calls a “Personality disorder”.
If we allow the individual, rather than the professional, to tell us about their suffering, we find most complain of mental distress.  It is their subjective experience that they are in pain, which leads them to seek help (not their lack of rationality).
There are of course a few people who gain a mental illness diagnosis because others have complained about them, although they themselves claim to be happy and are not suffering mental distress.  By giving them an illness diagnosis the psychiatrist says that the person should not be dealt with by the law but by the NHS.  We might feel that most of the people in prison have behaved irrationally, and should therefore be seen as mentally ill?
If we see someone as “distressed”, our compassionate response is surely to provide comfort?
“You are ill and must undergo treatment to make you better.” May be comforting if it is true.  But what if they are not ill, and the treatment does not make them better?
Surely it is better to say: you are a unique human being with special abilities and the distress you are suffering is a side-effect. The side-effects are actual physical states and can be treated best if the person is valued. You are not defined by your cancer, heart disease or infection, so why should you be defined by an ability, which rationalists view as a disaster/ disease.
Now re-read the Beatitudes in Matthew 5: 3-10, and see in each description a person you know, who is suffering mental distress.

The image above is courtesy of https://pixabay.com


JohnMyhill450John Myhill is a Norwich Quaker, retired magistrate and author. His blog is at http://johnmyhill.wordpress.com/

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