By Claire McGrath
Mental illness has been the subject of much discussion recently due to the tragic loss of Robin Williams. His death reminds us of the devastating effects of mental illness, and the need to address this problem. Mental illness is a result of chemical imbalances and physical abnormalities in the brain, as well as one’s environment, and it affects the mind, body, and spirit—it’s all encompassing. I think the issue begs an important question: what is the role of faith in mental illness? Of course, I don’t have the definitive answer. What I can offer are my thoughts on the subject, based on my own experiences.
In a 2012 survey It’s obvious that mental illness is a major issue in our society. I have experienced my own struggles with anxiety during my time in college, and have received professional treatment. Anxiety is a fairly prevalent issue among college students. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety disorders are among the most common mental health problems for college students. When I was struggling the most, I felt very distant from God. I was frustrated with myself, and I believed that if I only worked harder on my relationship with God, then I wouldn’t be in such a dark place. I thought that a lack of faith was part of my problem.
I’ve realized that this kind of thinking leads to guilt and self-blame; the reality is that mental illness is such a complex issue caused by many different factors, and a troubled relationship with God does not “cause” mental illness. Our God is not a God who would punish us for our shortcomings by inflicting us with a brain disorder, just as He would not punish our sinfulness with other diseases. It’s true that we find our emotional well-being often reflects our relationship with God. However, there is a significant difference between a temporary emotional state and an actual illness. Everybody experiences anxiety from time to time, but when I realized that my anxiety was starting to affect my decision making, impair my ability to concentrate, prevent me from doing things I enjoyed, and interfere with my happiness, I recognized that something more serious was going on. A mental illness is a disease, just like any physical ailment, and our relationship with God does not prevent or bring on diseases.
However, just as illness affects one’s relationship with family and friends, it can also affect one’s relationship with God. I found that it was hard for me to feel close to my loved ones and to God when I was so distracted by feelings of despair, frustration, and anxiety. It’s not that these things created a gulf between God and me―no force can prevent God from reaching any of us―but they clouded my vision, preventing me from recognizing God’s presence right beside me. Mental illness can take people to a very dark place, as it did with me. But…God accompanies us down that dark path, giving us the strength to continue on in our journey toward the light.
I realized that I could not heal without God; however, God’s aid came to me in many different forms, and at a time when I didn’t even know what I needed, I found myself surrounded by supportive people who guided me in the right direction. I recognize God’s presence in the therapists, psychologists, doctors, and other medical professionals whose vocation is to provide hope to people experiencing mental illness. He’s present in support groups, in therapy, in counseling, and in the countless other tools used to heal mental illness. He’s present in the family members and friends whose support is strong and unconditional. And He’s there in the depth of our pain, united with us in our suffering.
As I work to overcome my struggles with anxiety, I’ve found healing in counseling, in confiding in loved ones, and, yes, in prayer. Mental illness, like any other illness, is not something that anybody chooses. I did not choose to experience anxiety, and I could not choose to heal myself on my own. I simply did not have the capability to overcome anxiety by myself—I relied on an entire network of people, from licensed professionals to family members and close friends. What those of us who have experienced mental illness can do is choose to ask for help and then accept it. And even in the depths of our suffering, we can seek solace in the fact that this isn’t a path that anyone has to walk alone. God is there whether we feel Him or not.
Some people have not experienced healing, and the results are tragic. I don’t understand why mental illness sometimes makes people so hopeless that they take their own lives, just like I don’t understand why people die from cancer or heart attacks or other diseases. But I do know there isn’t any illness, mental or physical, that has the power to separate us from God, and I believe that we are called to walk with others along their paths, to be lights when all they can see is darkness. We may not be able to “fix” those who are suffering―we may never even understand their illness—but we can serve as constant reminders of God’s love and we should patiently and steadfastly reflect His presence. The journey is not an easy one, but I believe in a God who accompanies us always—even through the darkness―gently guiding us toward healing and light.