The man in the tombs was, most likely, afflicted with a mental illness.
After Jesus’ healing, we are told in verse 35, the man is found sitting at the feet of Jesus, “clothed and in his right mind” – while before he had been unclothed and not in his right mind. He had had a mental illness; his brain had been sick. To borrow a phrase from our Psalm this morning, he had had a “soul full of troubles” – a troubled soul.
His neighbors attributed his condition to being possessed by demons, so found it particularly frightening. We read of him being kept under guard and bound with chains; he was living outside the town, in the tombs, away from society.
Now today we know that brains do sometimes get sick or break down, just as other parts of the body do. We don’t attribute all our illnesses to evil spirits. But when it comes to mental illness, we can still show the same fear, and the same desire to run away from people, and to put them away, as the people in Jesus’ time. Mental illness makes us uncomfortable; it still troubles us.
Well, today we’re going to talk about mental illness a bit: how do we as Christians react to the subject of mental illness? To people afflicted with mental illness? How did Jesus react? Is our reaction the same as his?
Much of our information will come from a resource issued by an ecumenical group – that is a group made up of people from different Christian churches working together, to come up with something helpful for all Christians, as we seek to respond in a loving, Christ-like manner. We have just heard the story of one mentally ill person, from the Bible; now, from this resource, we will hear another. This time the story is told by the person afflicted with mental illness himself:
“I have a thousand faces, and I am found in all races. Sometimes rich, sometimes poor, sometimes young, sometimes old. I am a person with the disabling pain of a broken brain.
“You have names for my pain like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and major depression. Some of you refer to me as crazy or insane. Many of you don’t refer to me at all; you want me locked away, out of sight – but my only crime is my shattered mind. I understand why you don’t want to look into a darkened soul – because I cry when I am forced to make the journey.
“Do you know the hurt I feel when I look into my family’s faces and see their fear? Fear of me and what I have become. I try to tell them I will not hurt them, and to explain it is not their fault. I try to reach out to them to ease their sorrow . . . but I fail to be a comfort because I cannot hide the agony of my own soul.
“I fight the demons of depression and despair. I search for a solace for my soul. I want my mind mended, but you must understand that a broken brain is more than mere mechanical failure. It has many causes, I am told. It may be hereditary, biological, or environmental. I don’t know for sure what causes it – but I know what it causes:
“It causes the total destruction of your inner self. It fragments you. It makes you seek an end, even if that means death. You seek the end because you see not only what it has done to you, but also what it is doing to the ones you love. The fear of death fades because to a large degree you already feel dead. You are not able, nor are other people willing, to interact with you as they once did. In fact, it feels like you have fallen so low even the devil has deserted you.
“I ask you: where do you turn when even the devil deserts you? To therapy? It helps, but only touches part of me. To medications? They help, but only touch part of me. Is there a path to a place that will touch all of me and mend not just my broken brain, but touch the untouchable?
“I once heard of such a path. It has been written about, but my mind wanders so much I find it hard to read. It has been spoken of, but I hear so many voices I don’t know which to follow. If you know the path, would you please find me? I may be in a hospital. I may be on the streets. I may be at home. Please find me and take me into your arms. Hold me there ‘til we find the path that leads into the arms of the One not afraid to touch the untouchable.
“Find my family, too. I may not be able to understand the written word or the words spoken to me. I may not even seem to know where I am, but I will know the warmth I feel when you gently put your arms around me. I will once again know I am loved.” (taken from When Even the Devil Deserts You by Ed Cooper)
“When you look around your congregation or your community,” the booklet says elsewhere, “there is a statistical likelihood that one of every four families is affected by mental illness. More than 44 million residents of the United States suffer from some sort of mental illness, including schizophrenia, mood disorders, and anxiety or personality disorders. In the course of your work and worship, you undoubtedly encounter persons and families who are hurting from mental illness. Historically, religious communities have been hospitable to persons afflicted by physical disability or illness, but much less welcoming of persons with mental illness.”
As I mentioned before, it is a mystery, and in our ignorance we sometimes attach causes to it which are not justified; we sometimes even blame the person who is afflicted for their condition. “Scientific and pastoral reasons,” however, “point toward a biological understanding of mental illness.” It has to do with a malfunction inside the body, not with weakness of character, or poor parenting, or not being right with God. “The weight of evidence today suggests a biochemical imbalance in the brain is the dominant cause of persistent mental illness.” So it is an illness, and should be treated as such. A person should not be held responsible for it any more than a person with heart disease, cataracts, or pneumonia.
The cause of mental illness is not the only thing about it which is often misunderstood. Hear, now, some other untrue “myths” about mental illness – and the corresponding “realities”
- Myth #1: Mental illness does not affect the average person. The Reality: NO one is off-limits for mental illness. We mentioned the 44 million people in the United States figure. More hospital beds in this country are occupied by people who have a mental illness than those who have cancer, heart, and lung disease
- Myth #2: Children do not get mental illness. The Reality: Fifteen million children and adolescents do suffer diagnosable mental disorders, including depression and conduct disorders.
- Myth #3: Mental illness is an indication of weakness of character, or lack of faith. The Reality: While the causes of mental illness are not fully understood, it is known that the brain’s neurotransmitters do not function properly, due to a biochemical imbalance in the brain – an imbalance like those in other systems and organs of the body, which does not imply any character or spiritual flaw.
- Myth #4: People who have a mental illness are dangerous. The Reality: People who have a mental illness are not more violent than someone suffering from cancer, diabetes, or any other serious disease. More often, they are victims of violence.
- Myth #5: If you have a mental illness, you act “crazy” all the time. The Reality: Mental illness is often temporary. There can be an episode, lasting weeks or months, followed by years or even a lifetime without another episode. Between episodes, the person may be perfectly well.
- Myth #6: A person can recover from a mental illness by turning his or her thoughts in a positive direction, or by praying. The Reality: Recovery is possible when the person receives the necessary treatment, just as with any other illness. Medications can reduce symptoms for most people. In addition, most can profit from supportive therapy and a community which helps build self-confidence, or sometimes teach independent living skills.
- And Myth #7: Most people who struggle with mental illness live on the street or in mental hospitals. The Reality is that about two-thirds of U.S. citizens who have a mental illness live in the community, either with their family or in some kind of community-living setting.
Those are the truths about mental illness.
In light of those truths, what is the appropriate reaction to mental illness? Let’s look at Jesus’ reaction, in Luke 8, and see: Notice first what Jesus did not do. He did not say “You better get on your knees and ask for forgiveness or you’ll never get straightened out.” He did not say “If you hadn’t done such-and-such, this never would have happened.” There is no hint whatsoever of blaming the man for his situation, or suggesting that it had something to do with a problem with his relationship with God or with his lifestyle. There is only a healing.
Jesus did not say, “Why don’t you just pick yourself up and get on with your life? Stop this foolishness.” There is no suggestion on his part that this was something the man could or should overcome by himself. There is only a healing.
And Jesus did not say to the crowd: “You better watch out for this guy. You better assign him a guard. You better make him live outside the city wall, just in case.” There is no suggestion that his is a particularly dangerous condition. There is only a healing. In fact, there is nothing at all to distinguish Jesus’ treatment of this man from that of anyone else he healed; to Jesus, this is just another illness, just another hurting person, just another affliction, like paralysis or bleeding or fever. There is nothing sinful, or lazy, or scary about it.
And notice too what he does after the healing. First, he spends time with the man, who stays and sits at his feet and talks with Jesus; he establishes a relationship with him. And second, he sends him back into his home and his community, with a job to do. “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” Jesus did not treat him as permanently damaged or disabled or incapable. He has been sick, and now he is well.
So what can we do in response to mental illness? Unfortunately, we can’t heal it with a word, as Jesus did. The discouraging fact about mental illness is that there is still so much we don’t know about how to treat it. But we can imitate Jesus’ response to the mentally ill man in other ways. We can refrain from blaming people with a mental illness for their condition, just as Jesus did. We can approach them as we would any other person with an illness, as Jesus did. We can establish a relationship with them, sitting with them, talking with them, as Jesus did. We can integrate them into the community, into the neighborhood, with a home and a job to do, as Jesus did. There is much in Jesus’ response that we can do.
Our resource provides some specific suggestions for churches, in a piece called “How A Congregation Can Respond.”:
- First, members of a congregation can be friends: Be accepting, friendly, understanding, and genuine. Telephone to keep in contact. Send an occasional card. Visit, talk with the person, listen to the person. Help them find ways to work with their strengths, their gifts. Be a friend.
- Second, members of a congregation can let the person know they are not alone. Welcome the person into the church community. Treat them as having the same need for spiritual healing we all have, not some kind of “special case.” Reassure them that God loves them. Remember that their condition is not some kind of punishment from God.
- The congregation can look for opportunities to integrate the person into the congregation. While holiday programs are nice, more important is including the person in year-round activities. And encourage them to volunteer, or recruit them, for the church tasks that match their gifts.
- A congregation can open its building, to a support group for persons who are ill, or for family members; or maybe a drop-in center.
- Members can educate themselves about mental illness, its realities, and how to respond.
- And lastly, members of a congregation can advocate for persons with a mental illness, in the community: Helping the community improve the quality of life for persons with a mental illness. Supporting efforts to obtain housing and jobs. Objecting if media or someone speaking in public mocks or stigmatizes or spreads misinformation about those with a mental illness. Supporting increased budgets for research and treatment.
Finally, behind all these specific steps, there is an attitude, an approach, that Jesus showed when he accepted, healed, and welcomed the man with a mental illness. He treated him as he would any other sick person. He showed compassion. He did what he could to ease his pain.
Our final piece is by Dr. Patricia Deegan, who works with the mentally ill: “Who are the long-term mentally ill? They are human beings who live in great anguish, who suffer the pain of isolation, who feel as if God has forsaken them, who ask, ‘Why did this happen to me?’ They are human beings whose needs are as simple as yours and mine: the need to belong. The need to live in a community where neighbors don’t chase them away. The need to worship God within a community that doesn’t exclude them if they are poorly dressed. The need for friends. The need to find meaning in their suffering; the need to be consoled. The need to dare to hope again – and you and I can nurture that hope.
“The religious community can play an important role in the lives of the long-term mentally ill. Let the spirit of the spiritual community embrace these forsaken ones. Take the time to know them by name and to frequent their homes. Console them and their families. Don’t do things for the mentally-ill – they have had enough of that – do things with them. Invite them into the life of your community.
“And when your congregation asks, ‘Who are the mentally ill?’ tell them, ‘above all, they are simply human beings.’ And when your congregation asks, ‘How might we serve the mentally ill?’, tell them, ‘For God’s sake, in God’s name, love them.’ Love them.”
God, thank you for Jesus’ compassion toward and help of the man with a mental illness. Help us follow his example, in whatever ways we can. And draw close to all who have a mental illness, healing them, reassuring them of your love. Amen.