Traditionally, the Church has assisted in the recovery of mental health by, “the blood of the lamb and the word of their witness” (Rev.12:11), that is, ministering with the sacraments, the scriptures, prayer, and the testimonies of others. The study, “The Prevalence of Religious Coping among Persons with Mental Illness” states: “Religion may serve as a pervasive and potentially effective method of coping for persons with mental illness, thus warranting its integration into psychiatric and psychological practice.” Peer support groups in Bible study and sharing sessions can be healing, as is one-on-one counselling.
The Mental Health Commission of Canada’s mental health first aid workshops offer the Church three things: 1. Exposure to the language of mental health professionals, thus aiding communication when parishioners are referred for help; 2. Exposure to psychiatry’s understanding and treatment approach, which has strengths and limitations; and 3. The knowledge to offer mental health fist-aid to individuals in crisis.
Much of the pathology of mental illness is still shrouded in mystery. The brain has 100 billion neurons linked with 100 times more connections that are in constant flux. Knowledge about these dynamics, and the role chemicals and genetics play in the mix, is in its infancy, thus weakening the effectiveness of mental health treatment compared to other health issues.
Psychiatry rarely, if ever, raises the influence of spiritual beings on the human psyche. The Church acknowledges this influence can be profound in both a negative and positive way. Christian mental health counsel should not shy away from addressing the spiritual dimension.
Insights into mental health challenges are not hard to find because depression, anxiety, and disorganized thoughts are, from time to time, episodes in the lives of everyone to a lesser or greater degree. The following illustration sketches the descent into mental illness and a role the Church can play in mental health prevention and recovery.
A key mental exercise associated with achievement is repetitive and detailed visualization, a skill highly developed by elite athletes and organization leaders who imagine succeeding. This technique has the ability to shape neural pathways that help them succeed. The same mental processes are at work, but negatively, in the slide toward poor mental health.
Negative visualizing can take people to places that feel like caves, sometimes deep, to the point of long-term alienation. The effects are disrupting and disturbing, but most people are only occasional cave visitors, caused by situational events in their lives. Abstract caves are mostly dug by worry, trauma, depravations, and fears.
Occasionally, however, some elements of brain anatomy contribute like faulty genetics and abnormal physical matter that disrupt the brain’s neural pathways. These become chains that seem to attach some people to the cave walls. The interior of the cave is for some dark, but for others a place that bombards the senses with a kaleidoscope sights, sounds, and feelings that are frightening and overwhelming. Looking toward the entrance of the caves, the outside seems to offer enticements and rejection, opportunities and dangers.
It takes a lot of energy, and sometimes a long time, to journey out of a cave; personal relationships that inspire hope, courage, faith, and love are of great help. A self-appraisal of the cave is required for insight, as is the development of new cognitive skills and knowledge. The latter are necessary to grasp the opportunities and cope with the dangers outside the cave.
Positive visualization through meditation and prayer is a therapeutic practise that can move people out of their caves. The Bible often encourages the practice in both the Old and New Testaments. Joshua 1:8 reads, “This book of the law shall not depart out of your mouth; you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to act in accordance with all that is written in it. For then you shall make your way prosperous, and then you shall be successful”. In Philippians 4:8 the writer tells us, “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things”.
Journeying with people out of their caves may require some time; each person’s recovery will be different. The story of the release of Lazarus from his cave does give us hope for something more: the miraculous power of Jesus and the Holy Spirit’s ability to break chains. The power of God “can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20).