“…suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us (Romans 5:3-5, NIV).
My life story includes many years of struggle with mental health issues triggered by childhood trauma. In the negative these experiences led to suicidal ideations, clinical depression, and anxiety. In the positive, they led to the fascinating world of neurobiology, Mental Health First Aid, Trauma Informed Practice, and the privilege of supporting others on their journey into a dark and lonely place. Most importantly though, they led to the understanding that I always have hope and ongoing healing in Christ. This has literally been a saving grace.
Research suggests mental health issues can be triggered or worsened by an extensive combination of biological, psychological, socioeconomic and environmental factors including:
· Trauma experienced as a child or teenager (neglect, sexual/physical/psychological/verbal abuse).
· Major sources of stress such as a death or divorce, problems in family relationships, job loss, and school.
· Neurotransmitter activity imbalances.
· Brain injuries.
· Substance abuse or exposure to toxins such as lead
· Genetics (Storrie, Ahern & Tuckett, 2010; Bor, Dean, Najman & Hayatbakhsh, 2014)
We do not have the time nor space to discuss why some developmental health conditions and others do not, despite commonality in life experiences. Importantly, we should consider that developing a mental health condition “is not a failure of Christian faith; it is a challenge to Christian faithfulness” (Cook, 2020). Psychologist and church minister, Christopher Cook suggests Jesus’ teaching was concerned with the exact things we label as mental health issues today. Jesus’ ministry, writes Cook (2020), was focused on those who modern society has identified as the predominant groups struggling with mental health issues – the oppressed, the poor (spiritually and materially), those held captive (by sin, fear, trauma), those living with a disability, and the marginalised. Cook reminds us of a simple Christian reality.
The gospel is not an easy way out; it does not promise a stress-free life in which all anxiety and mental suffering are banished. It does, however, offer a realistic account of the world in which we live. More importantly, the incarnation of God in Christ shows us that we are not alone. In Christ, God shares in the kinds of suffering that we call mental illnesses (para. 25, 2020).
We should never minimise or trivialise mental health because it is VERY real. I suggest, though, that we can take hope from Cook’s words. Whilst modern society has named the concept, the concept is nothing new. Jesus actively taught about it and treating people for it in His ministry. He has experienced everything we are capable of so understands and walks with us in our journey.
Living with a mental health condition is NOT an indication of the failure of our faith. It is but a challenge to our faithfulness and leads us to persevere in our belief that true hope lies in the God of hope who assures us of “all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15:13, NIV).