Friday 5 November 2010

Mental illness: the unmentionable sin

November 5, 2010

When I was growing up, Christians did not suffer from depression (or any other form of mental illness, for that matter.  Nor dementia.).  (They rarely suffered poverty either, but that's a topic for another occasion).

How do I know this?  Because it was never mentioned.  Not even in the long list of sins which were often expounded upon - dancing, smoking, drinking, going to the movies, wearing makeup, and so on. 

We prayed earnestly for healing of Christians from physical ailments (though if the ailments went on too long, we prayed that they would develop more faith, or would forsake whatever hidden sin was in their lives).  We prayed for salvation for sinners who indulged in worldly passions.  But we didn't pray for Christians with any form of mental illness.  (I don't recall praying for non-believers with mental illness, either, though I do recall folks whispering about them occasionally).

There were just some sins that were unmentionable.  Sins that obviously resulted from serious lack of faith (at best), or as consequences of terrible sins (hidden ones, especially), or perhaps from terrible sins "passed down" from sinful forebears.  (Or from involvement in "occult" practices.  That "cause" was generally mentioned, if at all, under one's breath).

We did have a few church-attenders who were "different" or "odd" or "burdened."  Kind of like at school where there was a "special class."  And like at school, we peeked at them nervously out of the corner of our eyes.  And didn't sit too close to them, if possible.

A few years ago, I learned that while my aunt and my mom were still very young, my grandma had borne a baby boy, who only lived a few days.  After that, grandma's "health broke," and Grandpa had to "leave the ministry."  They packed up their few belongings, and moved from Edmonton to the sunny Okanagan, where Grandpa worked at whatever jobs he could find.  Unfortunately, the great depression hit, and Grandpa, though a very hard worker, found it difficult to support the family.  Apparently his "health broke" for a time, as well.  Grandpa was never able to return to the ministry.  As he was certainly one of the most Godly men I have ever known, I found this puzzling. 

When I was growing up, my mom (one of the most Godly women I have ever known, and beloved by everyone who ever met her) from time to time would "become ill."  We would be admonished by our dad to be quiet, and help out more, and so on.  Mom would be very tired, and didn't smile much, which was very much against her natural sunshiny personality.  After us kids were grown, dad would sometimes take her, in their camper, down to Arizona, "for the sun."  As a young person, I often wondered what kind of sickness she might have, as she didn't seem to be "sick" in any clearly visible way.

When we went to church, though, Mom would still dress nicely, fix her hair, and be friendly, despite her "illness."  As she was often pale during these times, she would put on a little bit of lipstick and rouge (sinful though they were), and smile bravely.  I'm pretty sure no one at church was aware that mom was "sick." 

Actually, no one at church was "sick" like that, that I ever knew about.  Just like no unmarried girls ever had babies, although occasionally they went away to live with relatives for a year sometimes.

Over the years, as we lived in various small communities, we attended churches of different denominations.  Depression, and other mental illness, did not exist.  Of course, they didn't particularly exist in our communities, either.  When we went to Vancouver to visit our cousins, we would pass by Riverview Hospital, a large institution of foreboding brick buildings with barred windows, sitting stolidly in the center of lovely green lawns and trees.  I often shivered as we drove by. 

So I suppose I shouldn't blame the churches.  At least not too much.  Though I often wonder if the churches' attitude toward these illnesses didn't affect societal attitudes.

When depression hit very close to home for me, in the past couple decades, as some of my children experienced clinical depression, and as I went through depressive episodes myself, I was forced to face the reality.  We worked with doctors and psychologists and school counselors and other professionals.  The doctors and psychologists kept assuring me that clinical depression was connected to physical problems, particularly chemical imbalances in the brain; often exacerbated by stress and other environmental issues.  And that it was often hereditary.  I talked to my uncle about it, and he confirmed that many family members had suffered from depression.  The doctors prescribed medication, and counseling, including working toward lifestyle changes.

But when it came to the churches we attended, the old brick wall was still there for the most part.  And the viewpoints had not changed very much.  At one point, as I seriously considered suicide, the church's "Christian counselor" informed me that people with depression were simply selfish.  And people who wanted to commit suicide were extremely selfish.  So depression was a sin issue.  Get over the sin, get over the depression.  Easy.  Right.  My bad.  At another church (we moved quite often, and went to various churches) mental illness was most often connected to past involvement in the occult, either by the person suffering, or from someone in their family line.  However, I did meet one or two ministers (from mainline denominations) who were more likely to accept the doctor's explanations, and who at the same time believed that there are also spiritual ways to reach renewed health. They gave me hope.

I have to admit that I much more readily accepted help for my children than for myself.  This past couple months is the first time I have ever personally  used meds.  Or admitted that I really do need serious help.  I think part of the reason I have been willing this time round is that my kids insisted - which shook me up as to the seriousness of my situation.  And in the past 3 or 4 years I have finally come to know God in a relationship of love, rather than  feeling guilt and judgment.  So I have not feared to come to Him for help.  And that's an amazing thing.  I have come to the point where not only can I rest in His love, but also accept medical care for my depression, the same way I would accept medical care for any physical illness.  

Another reason I have been willing to accept help is that the gathering of the church who I am most closely a part of these days, is made up mainly of people  who are living on or very close to the streets.  Many of them have struggled, and many still struggle daily, with mental illness that goes far beyond anything I have experienced myself.  And they struggle daily with outfalls like drug and alcohol addiction, broken families, inability to maintain jobs, and so on.  But as they have come to Jesus, and have experienced His love, he is changing them.  And they are sharing His love with others, instead of turning away, or judging.

I was really embarrassed to admit I had a problem.  After all, I am supposed to be one of the "helpers" at this street "mission."  When I would turn up for a few minutes, and sit hunched in a chair, unable to really "participate" (never mind "help"), they just KNEW where I was at, although I was afraid to tell the truth.  "Are you taking meds?" one of the gals asked, gently.  I looked down at my feet, and nodded slightly.  She just reached over and gave me a long, gentle hug.  "I'm on meds, too, you know," she said.  "It's okay."  And instead of me running around flipping pancakes, and serving coffee, the guys started serving me.  They checked up on me regularly.  They even bought me, out of their very limited funds, a bright, cheerful "hippie-style" knitted purse and hat, "because they remind us of you!" 

I realized, more and more, that Jesus really does love us unconditionally.  That depression is not an unforgivable (and unmentionable) sin.  That it isn't even, necessarily, "my fault" or caused by "my selfishness and sin."  That the church can - and must - love everyone.  Serve everyone.  Not judge them.  That Jesus wants to use Him people to bring His love and healing, no matter what.  That He wants us to accept His love, His forgiveness, His salvation, His healing.  And that He wants to walk with us through the process; not just wait until we get "good enough."

Thank You, Jesus. Father.  Holy Spirit. 
And thank You, church.


Elizabeth Laine said...

Hi Norma,I was married to a doctor with bipolar disorder for 27yrs.We have 4 kids. He wasn't accepted at church either.We did find a church which did, but, despite all the support and my loyalty, he committed suicide. I wrote a bk to help others with my hindsight. "A butterfly landed an Eagle". Please post a comment on, love 2 no more of your success story & mission. With my prayers, God bless you, Elizabeth Laine

Elizabeth Laine said...

My husband & I no longer attend church. Disillussioned for different reasons other than mental illness. Charismatic Invasion, Big Business, Public Speakers not Pastors, Songs to Entertain not Hymns for worship...the list is extensive. I discuss this in my bk; A butterfly landed an Eagle, also. Love to know what u think.Please post yr. comment on blog already given Norma. Elizabeth Laine

Norma Hill - aka penandpapermama said...

Hi Elizabeth!
I checked out your site and am very interested to read your book.

I have friends with bipolar disorder and have also tutored a student (over a 2 year period) who was bipolar. So I do recognize and relate to the difficulties you've faced.

I also relate to your exit from traditional church, for many of the reasons you list, and others.

Please feel free to explore this blog further. At the top of the blog, you will find links to specific "pages" which relate to topics including my journey through the whole "church" thing; my experiences with clinical depression and dementia; and the "street church" gathering I am a part of. I have also been adding a number of posts in the last few days related to mental illness, as I work through my own struggle with clinical depression.

If you are interested, you may also wish to check out "A Mother's Journey" ( which is from the years when my children were teens and we were going through many issues including depression, and the church's response, and so on.

I look forward to reading your book and will comment on it once I'm done!