Rarely does a day go by when there is not some kind of a report of violence caused by an individual who is mentally ill. We have all witnessed the tragedy at Virginia Tech, and many of us have followed the trial of the wife of a Church of Christ minister who shot and killed her husband. Locally there are large numbers of similar situations that come about because someone was mentally ill. We also have seen people claim mental illness as a justification for an abusive act that damaged someone else.
I do not write this article as one who has had no experience with genuine mental illness. Our son Timothy was born with a number of congenital problems--blindness, cerebral palsy, and a form of muscular dystrophy. When Tim became a teenager he became increasingly harder to manage and control, and ultimately ended up in a mental hospital run by the state. We were informed that he had schizophrenia and that his behavior was very much in accord with that mental illness. My only association with schizophrenia was what I had seen in movies where a schizophrenic was killing everyone in horrible ways. It did not seem possible that this is what was causing some of the bizarre behaviors that we were seeing in our son.
The reactions of Christians we knew to Tim's illness were very inconsistent. Many of them did not want to be around Tim, and in fact made it plain that they would rather he not come to social functions that we attended as a family. Even those who were close to us did not know how to take Tim. When he requested to be baptized and wanted to take a role in the Church there were serious concerns expressed about whether these were things that ought to be done or not. Even in recent years the diagnosis of schizophrenia has been a problem for people in contact with Tim. In 2007 the people managing Tim's living arrangements wanted to move him to an apartment where his blindness could be managed better. The mother of one of the young men that Tim would be sharing the apartment with became very concerned when she learned that Tim had been diagnosed with schizophrenia. Even people who have handicapped children have a difficult time with the mental illness that might be present in someone else. What we would like to attempt in this article is to talk about this phenomenon and how Christians can respond to the challenges of mental illness.
Mental Illness Is Not Caused by God. There are many causes of mental illness. Our son Tim is an adopted child so we do not know all of the causes of his problems, but doctors believe it was probably measles in the birth mother early in the pregnancy. Experts on mental health tell us that illnesses like this usually cause some mental disturbances as well as the physical difficulties our son has. Brain tumors and brain injuries can also cause mental illness. It is a fact that various industrial wastes can cause mental illnesses. Lead can cause a variety of problems, mental illness being one of them. In recent years there have been strong suggestions that autism may be linked to industrial wastes. There is no question that this is a contributing factor.
Abuse can also be a cause of mental illness. Trauma is known to have caused mental illness in some patients. Chemical imbalances in the body caused by a variety of factors can be a cause of mental illness. As you read through these suggestions, I would hope that you would realize that most of these things are caused by man and his injudicious acts both in terms of pollution and in the way people treat each other. Obviously there are many factors, but God is not the cause of these disturbances. In the biblical record there are cases like Job in which terrible problems come to a person because of the actions of Satan, but God is never the author of these problems. The Bible makes it clear that the nature of God makes it impossible for him to be the author of mental illness. James 1:13 says "Let no man say when he is tempted, I am tempted of God; for God cannot be tempted with evil, and He Himself tempteth no man."
When people say "I don't know why God did this to my loved one," they are making an error. God is not the source of any of the bad things that happen in our lives including mental illness.
Mental Illness Is Treatable. When Tim was diagnosed with schizophrenia, he was put on a drug called Mellaril to treat the disorder. It took some time for him to get adjusted to the drug, but he did so in a month or so and had no symptoms of schizophrenia for over 20 years. Eventually a doctor changed the medication and put Tim on a different drug. In a very short time some of Tim's schizophrenic symptoms returned and he ended up back in the mental hospital. This time it took about five days for a new drug regime to be established, and again the symptoms disappeared. When the symptoms returned they were mild and he was never a danger to anyone. He also knew what was happening, even though he is blind and retarded. He was hearing voices and knew this was not right. It took a while for his care givers to take him seriously, but eventually he was able to return to the schedule and environment he had been in before the drugs were changed.
People who are mentally ill and their families learn how the medications affect them and what they need to retain their normal role in life. The danger is when social pressure or ignorance causes someone to not take their medications and to be in denial of their illness. This is just like diabetes. My wife has been an insulin-dependent diabetic for over 60 years. She takes three shots a day and we are approaching our 50th wedding anniversary in which we will celebrate a very long and happy marriage. Both my wife and I know how to manage diabetes. If she decided to stop taking her regular insulin shots, she would get into trouble very quickly. Part of the management program is to understand what is needed and sticking to it in a very disciplined way. The same is true of mental illness as well.
Even in biblical times there were people who struggled with mental issues. Although they did not have the tools we have today to treat these disturbances, they used what they had and coped with the problem. Saul's mental problems with David's success was treated by the music that David brought to him. No one should feel there is something wrong or anti-biblical about getting medical help for mental problems.
Christians Need to Be Involved in Reaching Out to the Mentally Ill. The Gospel Commission is "Go preach the gospel to every creature" (Mark 16:15). There is nothing in this commission that gives the qualifications of the person who is to be taught. The Christian system as taught in the Bible demands that we help and support those who are feeble-minded (weak)--see 1 Thessalonians 5:14. The Church has a long way to go in reaching out to the mentally ill by providing the love, acceptance, and support that they need. Let us not neglect this aspect of the work of the Lord.
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