(This month’s guest blog offers a unique perspective on mental illness, from a doctor from Northern Ireland who found herself institutionalized as a patient. Writer Sharon Hastings further details her struggles in Wrestling With My Thoughts: A Doctor With Severe Mental Illness Discovers Strength.)

The nurse removes a glass nail-polish bottle and the flashlight I use to check patients’ pupils, then passes my handbag back to me. I bite my lip, hard, as a hot tear slides down my left cheek.

“I want to go home.”

“You’ll have to speak to the doctor about that.”

My chair wobbles and I look down at the frayed carpet. The nurse finishes her search of my belongings and pulls back the curtain around my bed, exposing me for the first time to the other women. Hastily, I push my white coat back into my suitcase. Senior medical students don’t get admitted to psychiatric wards—do they?

Wrestling With My Thoughts book coverI am a doctor. I graduated from medical school in 2007 with the goal of becoming a family practitioner. Four years later, I was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, a “severe and enduring” mental illness that caused episodes of psychosis when I lost touch with reality.

Denied a license to practice medicine, I went through psychiatric treatment and eventually became a writer instead. Today, I have a meaningful occupation, I am a wife and mom, and I am part of a community. I am also a Christian, and I feel passionate about helping the church to better understand severe mental illness. Here’s why…

A better understanding of “severe and enduring” mental illness helps to eliminate fear.
The church is improving in its handling of common mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety. However, illnesses involving psychosis—schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and schizoaffective disorder—are much less understood.

My own psychosis was terrifying. I perceived an “evil presence” behind my left shoulder and pterodactyl-like “tormentors” flapping around my head. I got messages from “a network in the fourth dimension,” and paranoia convinced me that people were conspiring against me. Now, antipsychotic medication helps me manage psychosis, which is associated with a dopamine imbalance in the brain.

Severe mental illness sometimes scares people, but those who suffer are much more likely to be vulnerable than dangerous. And with the right treatment, they can function at a high level. A little understanding can do a lot to diminish fear.

Mental illness -not a barrier to church engagement.

Mental illness need not pose a barrier to church engagement.
You might be thinking, “This isn’t really relevant to me: there’s no one in my church with psychotic illness…” But mental illness may be making it difficult for the affected to attend church. For example, I had long spells in the hospital. And at other times, I was too paranoid to risk joining a group. I needed Christians to reach out to me, as I believe Jesus, who walked with the marginalized, would have done.

Not quite fitting in, I felt shame, and was often misunderstood by the churches I attended. I went to a conservative church and was told that my problems were “for the professionals.” I visited a charismatic church and was told that my illness reflected a demonic stronghold and that I simply needed to pray more.

If churches made mistakes, so did I. In one manic episode, I gave my last £1000 to a church and had to ask for it back. In another, I emailed the entire church membership list to complain about how they had treated me. Thankfully, some individual Christians stuck with me, and I am now determined to help those within church to understand people like me. Running away is not an option.

Christians with severe mental illness seek the same things as other Christians.
Churches may assume that people with severe mental illness need special prayer and counseling. Usually, though, people like me who have a psychotic illness are already receiving professional healthcare, or are at least known to mental health services. When I go to church, I am seeking the same things as other Christians: fellowship, community, and discipleship. I want the best treatment, but I also want to grow in my faith.

What’s more, like all Christians, I have gifts. I can help out with music, and provide encouragement to others who have suffered as I have. Yes, I have an illness, but the illness does not define me. I know other Christians with mental illness who contribute through art and drama, and even through Bible teaching. An inclusive church looks for and cultivates these gifts.

Stigma is real and the church can play a key role in overcoming it.
Those of us with psychotic illness live with a sense of stigma, a feeling like shame or disgrace. In one U.K. survey, 87 percent reported that stigma has significantly affected their lives. I have experienced stigma both inside and outside the church, and I know others with similar diagnoses who feel so stigmatized that they no longer attend church.

As Christians, we are called to be ministers of grace, not to mark people with disgrace. Jesus never ignored the stigmatized, whether tax collectors, prostitutes, or those afflicted with leprosy. I believe that his followers have an important role to play in combating the stigma of mental illness.

church can help overcome the stigma of mental illness

The church needs to recognize the usefulness of “common grace” treatments.
Some churches downplay, or even resist “secular” treatments such as medication. The brain is an organ that can get sick, just as in diabetes the pancreas gets sick. A diabetic takes insulin to control their blood glucose; someone with severe mental illness may need to take an antipsychotic to help control the level of dopamine within the brain.

To maintain my recovery, I take antipsychotic, mood stabilizing, and antidepressant medications. Lots of things have helped me to make progress, but I believe a change in my medication regimen early in 2019 underpinned the process. I’m grateful to attend a church that supports me in treatments that help my recovery.

Recovery (not cure but optimization) is possible!
When I was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, I was told to adjust my expectations of life. I could never be a doctor, and in fact I might never work at all. Today’s mental health professionals are beginning to use a “recovery-focused model”: though complete cure is unlikely, quality of life can improve.

Although I’ve not been able to practice as a clinician, I use my medical training every day as I write about faith and mental illness. I live a fulfilled and worthwhile life, and enjoy being a mom. I consider myself to be walking in recovery, even though I sometimes have symptoms of depression or feel tired because of medication.

Recovery builds on the positives in life, so that the negatives have less power. When I have “blips,” Christian friends encourage me in my role as a mother and in my writing. With their support, I can build on these positives, which helps me to feel less mentally ill and more like a whole person.

I may not fit the expected profile of mental illness, but disease does not discriminate. Middle class Christian professionals like me can succumb. I believe that God cares about those with psychosis—rich or poor, institutionalized, homeless, or living independently in the community. We are often seen as the least in society, and what Christians do for “the least of these,” they do for Jesus himself (Matthew 25:40).

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34 responses to “Walking with Mental Illness”

  1. Amy Baker says:

    I’m in a mental health nursing class right now and I wanted a better understanding of how to approach this vulnerable population in faith. Your article was timely and informative to this very issue. I especially appreciated your comment about “ Christians with severe mental illness seek the same things as other Christians.” It’s so easy to assume we must provide or be informed about a special need, when really they need what everyone needs from church. Thank you for this perspective.

  2. Chima Christopher says:

    This is all shades of beautiful. It would seem the experience is similar for most of us

  3. Doug Ross says:

    A great and thoughtful treatment of mental illness and what the Church of Jesus Christ needs to deal with. Too often we ignore things of this nature and fail to walk along side in their suffering. Thanks Philip for sharing this.

  4. Sharon says:

    In the early 70’s, my young husband was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. I was so afraid that I left him. He took his own life and I have lived with the grief and sorrow of that for 46 years. I’m grateful for the new understanding and support available now.

  5. Paula Carnes says:

    Has there been any science to document that SOME cases of mental illness could be caused by demon possession? I knew person who prayed to spirits and then started stalking people.

  6. Martin Morgan says:

    Thank you so much for your article. Our 40 year old daughter Kerianne has been dealing with serious mental illness since she was a teen and has made good progress. It seemed to be a combination of the right medications, social interaction and a good support system around her. She is very intelligent and lives independently in her own apartment. Her greatest comfort, for about 3 years now, is her little chihuahua named Bagel. Bagel was a rescue dog and certainly has been an invaluable comforting companion to our daughter. There is always hope so never stop praying.
    God Bless…
    Marty Morgan

    • Assistant_to_PY says:

      [from Sharon Hastings] I agree that there is always hope. I’m so glad Kerianne has made progress and that Bagel brings her comfort. Pets are great for that.

  7. Mary Robertson says:

    Thanks Philip for posting a writing on mental illness.

  8. Allison Haase says:

    Thank you Sharon for courageously sharing your story! Abuse, addiction, divorce and abandonment caused by undiagnosed mental illness in my Christian family-my dad, brother, husband, mother in law and daughter-has caused much suffering in our lives. It has fractured our families, BUT GOD has restored our lives and our family relationships as we have found help, healing and recovery! For 28 years my marriage was filled with abuse and addiction, we were Christians and leaders in the church who struggled and could not get past our past, but miraculously Jesus took us on a journey of healing as both my husband were stuck in our past trauma, and even with Jesus we couldn’t do it alone. We found freedom and support through our church’s Celebrate Recovery ministry. It’s been two years since God has restored our marriage and is restoring our family. My husband has courageously faced his diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder that he ran from our entire marriage. We are doing better than ever and my husband has been on medication since April of this year. Recovery is possible and there is hope for families who have been given the gift, albeit challenging, of loving and walking with a family member with mental illness. I recently became a AACC board certified Mental Health Coach in order to help others families find hope and healing, and to help bring awareness that is desperately needed in the church. It is our prayer that many churches would participate in the AACC (American Association of Christian Counselors) initiative founded by Dr. Tim Clinton, Dare to Care, to train up and mobilize church leaders and to launch mental health ministries in churches. At times, I still struggle to find our community and place in the church as mental illness is not understood. I pray that Jesus will continue to use your story and platform to bring awareness and healing to those like me and my family who have felt like outcasts. However, we are seen, heard and loved by our Good Father, the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those with the comfort we have received from Him (2 Cor. 1:3-4)

    • Assistant_to_PY says:

      [from Sharon Hastings] Thank you, Allison. I am glad you have found freedom, support, and restoration for your family. It is good to hear of the Dare to Care initiative. Such ministries are important.

  9. Letty says:

    I’m a doctor, and I have experienced severe symptoms of depression and severe problems to take any kind of form of criticism about what I do especially from my husband. I stoped working as a doctor when we decided to move to Canada 4 years ago but that didn’t bother me at that time because I wanted to be with my 3 kids who were all under 4 years old but then I started to feel so overwhelmed with the household work and cooking and cleaning and taking care of my kids with no relatives or close friends near by that in so many times I felt hopeless and I just felt apart like a glass jar and all the resentment the frustration and the shame for not being able to be a good wife, mother and a good household administrator came out from me and I found my self in a fetal position, crying or even sometimes slapping at me for not being who I had supposed to be. And then I started to notice that I had this strong episodes one or two weeks before my period and after that for one or two weeks I used to feel so different I was funny, more productive my thoughts were a little bit more clear and is when I realized and discovered that I have been suffering of PMDD a very severe one that has to do with a hormonal imbalance. Now I’m in my way to start the right treatment for it. But I have been so afraid to talk with anyone about the shameful behaviour that I have had during the crisis,like wishing in so many times to not exist any longer and the only thought that has stopped me of making it a reality is the trauma that something like that could cause in my kids life. Another reason of keeping my mouth shut is the fear that people at church will find me someone not worthy of trust or that I won’t be able to do what I love to do like serving at children ministry at church. And that make me feel like being inside a cage where I can’t be totally free of shame and guilt.

    Reading your post today make me realize how important is to recognize as Pastor Rick Warren also said that is not a sin to be ill is not a sin to be broken we all are broken and our chemistry is not our character.
    Our identity and true character is found in Jesus in his grace and love for us as you well said in the today blog. So I took the decision to talked with mature and Christian friends pray with them and being able to be honest with someone else felt so good. And I talked about that with my Gynaecologist and we had started to look for options and the best way to deal with this issue.

    Thank you for sharing your story and bring light and hope to so many people like me.

    • Philip Yancey says:

      Beautiful, courageous, oh-so-helpful response.

    • Assistant_to_PY says:

      [from Sharon Hastings] You’re welcome, Letty. PMDD is probably under-recognized and I’m glad your gynaecologist is discussing options with you. Keep finding your identity in Jesus.

  10. Carla Vornheder says:

    I am 55 years old. I have been in treatment for mental illness off and on since I wàs 14 and first attempted suicide. That means I have flirted with suicide off and on for 41 years. My pastor recently said that he had seen a great deal of harm done by secular psychology. I held my tongue. I feel like I have spent my life in a no man’s land between psychology and good theology. When I graduated high school, I was told by the people that do SAT testing that I was in the top half of the top 1 pèrcent of the students who took the SATs in 1986. I have held onto that. I am not stupid, but I am not as smart as I sometimes think. Today, I simply like to think of myself as adult. I have come to believe some things that others find a little suspect. Because I am unable to work, I have had a lot of time to study. One of the beliefs that causes others to wonder is my belief that codependency (a condition first identified in the families of alcoholics and written about by Melody Beatty) is found in the Bible under the name idolatry. Codependency can be defined as focusing all your life’s energies on anything that is not God, whether that is alcohol or drugs or on another person who is controlled by anything other than God. Codependency = Idolatry = All Sin. I blame Frank Minirth’s book “Love is a Choice” for helping me to come to this understanding. He is not as good a writer as Ms. Beattie, but he explains things with an almost mathematic precision. Labeling these things correctly is useful when we try to treat them. How do you overcome sin? Look hard into your heart. What do you spend your time and money on? Well, now that I’ve got you doubting my sanity, let me share something that has addressed my own problem more specifically. I have attempted to take my life more than 20 times. People say I’m just trying to get attention. People always assume major depression when they hear that dubious record. After a while suicidal thoughts have just become a habit. My mental illness has given me, I think, a vision of some scripture that is not wrong because it is different. One hospital gave me a Life Recovery Bible. One of the first entries in that Bible concerns God’s words to Cain in Genesis 4:7, “If you do well, will not your countenance be lifted up? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door; and its desire is for you, but you must master it.” That sounded so much like what I was battling. I suppose that’s not unique to mental illness. But there is something else. The curse of Cain was “When you cultivate the ground it will no longer yield its strength to you; you will be a vagrant and a wanderer on the earth.” The more I studied Borderline Personality Disorder, the more I came back to Cain. I don’t know how to explain this well, but that’s what I lived with every day. It helped me understand that maybe my own rootlessness, a vagrant and a wanderer, had something to do with Cain’s sin. Cain was a murderer. I would never take anyone else’s life, but I tried to take my own. I made myself the Lord, the one in whose hands were life and death. A lot of biblical punishments look in our day like the obvious results of the sins. This was also the case here. When I took life and death into my own hand, I divorced myself from society. Whenever there was something that somebody told me not to do, I just said, “What are they gonna do? Kill me? That would be doing me a favor.” Why would the ground no longer yoeld its fruit to Cain? Because, if he is like me, I have little patience to stay anywhere long enough to cultivate anything. I could go on and on, but if this is true then it reframes my recovery. I repent of taking my life out of God’s hands. And when I am tempted, I see my irresponsibility. I try to hold on, double down. Dr John Townsend, who would probably disagree with my conclusions here, once told me that the way for me to treat my own disorder was to find a group, like my Sunday School class, and stick with it through thick and thin. I often feel still like a vagrant and a wanderer; but in Christ, I have stayed in the same apartment for 20 years and at the same church 10-12-2008.

  11. Jim Knight says:

    Thank you for sharing this very important message, and congratulations to you Sharon for the courage and resilience you’ve shown. Your work writing about mental illness is an important gift to the world.

  12. Tony Coffey says:

    Hi Sharon, Today I will take time to pray for you. May God continue to be your strength and hope. God bless you. Tony Coffey

  13. Patricia Marleau says:

    I’ve been reading several of Philip Yancey’s books this year which have challenged me to redefine my Pentecostal Fundamentalist Christian beliefs. After leaving a legalistic cult-like church, discovering the true meaning of forgiveness & grace – my whole world view has changed (as I have changed!). What an amazing article this has been! I volunteer in a global organization that invites all (Catholic & Protestant) to pray for anyone who comes through the doors. I have learned through Scriptures, life experiences, & seeking answers to hard questions to show compassion to anyone who comes through the doors. I am ashamed of the legalistic, judgemental way that I viewed people. I am far from understanding all that life throws at us but to be that extension of God’s love & compassion has been amazing! I want to thank you for giving me one more way to bring hope & comfort to many who come through our doors. I pray I am an example to those in my teams of how to reach out effectively to bring light into dark places!

    • Assistant_to_PY says:

      [from Sharon Hastings] Thank you for sharing a little of your journey. May God use you within your organization to bring grace and compassion to many.

  14. Karen Hajj says:

    This is a helpful read for understanding the challenges of psychosis and living a full life with it.

  15. Joel says:

    Thank you thank you thank you for sharing. I suffer from anxiety, manic depression, PTSD. God has been so faithful. Sometimes His people haven’t. Thank you for sharing your experience. It is a blessing and so well put together. Please keep sharing

  16. Joseph L August says:

    PS. I also have a master’s degree in counseling, although I do not practice counseling. I am a certified peer specialist and looking for work in this arena. But there are not very many job openings. And they don’t pay very well.

  17. Joseph L August says:

    Thank you so much for sharing your story! This is a well-balanced article. I also have schizoaffective disorder and am an Evangelical christian. I struggle to find my place within the church. I want to lead a Bible study but am hesitant. I think my church leadership will be supportive though. I don’t think they know I have schizoaffective disorder. Our church is starting a mental health Ministry group to help those with mental illness issues. I have shared this article with them. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts.

    • Assistant_to_PY says:

      [from Sharon Hastings] You’re welcome, Joseph. I pray that my article will help those in the ministry group with whom you shared it.

  18. Connie Moore says:

    Dear Ms. Hastings. Your first sentence, detailing the process of entering a place of safety, i.e. psychiatric floor, triggered my memory of ‘surrendering anything with a cord, sharp implement, but most traumatic, was the ability to leave, if I chose to. Thank you, for sharing your journey.
    Connie Moore

    • Assistant_to_PY says:

      [from Sharon Hastings] I am sorry that you, too, have been through trauma. I will keep sharing my journey and I appreciate your prayers.

  19. Jono pierce says:

    This is such a powerful and helpful blog Thankyou

  20. Bill Evans says:

    Thank you for insight into how the church can support and love someone diagnosed with mental illness. We need to be a haven for all, and yet to do so responsibly.

    This article is very appreciated. I’m retired now as a pastor, but still attend and am part of a church. I want always to learn more a out loving all people well. Thank you.

  21. Norman says:

    This is a most helpful post which we Christians need to hear and heed. Congregations–especially conservative ones–really will benefit from deepening their commitment to practice giving grace to everyone rather than defining attendees who are living with mental illnesses as “mentally ill.” Far more of us live with mental illness than we realize. Jesus came to show us how to treat our fellow humans with acceptance, encouragement, and grace. Let’s get on with it!

  22. Marlyn Grant says:

    Brilliant story of a journey of recovery.

  23. Victoria Calhoun says:

    Good job Philip. You find those who Jesus would have sought out.

  24. Belinda Galvez says:

    This made me teary-eyed.
    Our only son, who’s a psychology professor in one of the best universities here in the Philippines, was diagnosed as a bi-polar patient a few years back. It broke my heart. He still teaches and continue to receive high ratings from among his students and colleagues.
    The Lord is good⚘️

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