(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?
I 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 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.
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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