The Great Divorce: Faith and Mental Health Today
This presentation was made on Saturday September 14, 2015 at the conference on Faith and Mental Health offered by Baptist Medical Center in Jacksonville, Florida…
I want to dedicate this presentation to a young woman. I will call her Kathy. I knew her years ago, when I was a young minister in my very first parish. She was very tall and generally scary looking. She wore black always. Combat boots. She looked like the kind of person you didn’t want to cross. She came not just on Sundays but began to drop by my office during the day. It was a small rural church in South Carolina. We would sit together in my office. She would perch on my sofa and wring her hands, unable to speak. She showed me where she had cut herself.
Over the months, Kathy told me what had happened to her mainly by writing it down on small scraps of paper that she would bring in with her. I got her to see a therapist quickly, but she still wanted to come by and talk to me. And this was her story.
Kathy was raped beginning around the age of four. Her uncle came to live with the family and he would find many ways to hurt her. Her mother was working full-time. She was often alone with her uncle. She didn’t know how to explain what was happening, how to put it into words. She thought it was her fault.
So she began washing her hands. Over and over again, many times a day, she would wash her hands until they became chapped and dry and red. And still she would wash them. Her mother didn’t understand why. It took her mother four years to discover what was really happening. Four years.
There are many different kinds of vocabularies that we use when describing mental illness. What Kathy did was suffer trauma as a child that resulted in mental health issues. Voices inside her head told her she was dirty and unworthy and that she should die. These voices and feelings originally came from outside her. They were instilled in her by trauma. They were a normal response to a horrible situation. Kathy was just trying to make sense of a crazy world. She was just trying to survive.
Kathy grew up into this tough young woman who carried a knife in her pocket, took martial arts and was plagued with anger and misery. We would pray and she worked so hard in therapy. When I moved away, I was certain she would be OK. But just three weeks ago, I heard from her mother that she had moved away from her support system and all alone in a new city, she had taken her own life. She was gone.
Like so many of you who have worked with patients or had loved ones who suffered, I feel such sadness and inadequacy when I think of Kathy. I wish I could have helped her more. I wish she had been born into a world that was fair and kind and treated her like the child of God that she was and even still is. So I dedicate this presentation to her and to all those who suffer from mental health issues. To you, Kathy. I am so sorry.
And as I look back, I wish that I had talked to Kathy about the value of her therapy. I wish that I had taught my entire congregation about the value of mental health professionals. We were on the same team. I simply referred her to a therapist and then did not mention it again. As a clergy person, I might think of Kathy’s struggle as a struggle against the evil that happened to her as a child, as the spiritual battle with demons of self-hatred that were instilled in her when she was raped. The therapist would have other words…But why did we not support one another? Could we have done more for Kathy if we had acknowledged each other?
This is a presentation about a divorce that happened at the dawn of psychoanalysis. The divorce that Sigmund Freud initiated when he brilliantly began to articulate a new discipline called psychoanalysis in order to understand and heal the human mind. It is my firm belief that if we are ever to truly help young women like Kathy or others who suffer from mental illness, we must join the hands of faith, science and medicine in a multidisciplinary approach to mental health. This divorce of the psychological from the spiritual has left us inadequately prepared to hear the sufferings of our fellow human beings. We have tried to dissect the human mind into psychological issues as opposed to spiritual issues. This has handicapped us in our treatment and in our compassion. Jesus made no such distinction. Nor did the great teachers of other faith traditions. It is time for us to admit that this divorce has not done us any good. The segregation of our practices weakens our work and ministry. It is time for a reconciliation. Human healing and wholeness can only be achieved when we join hands, when mental health professionals teach in churches and clergy come to the rooms of patients. We need one another.
In 1907, in one of his first books, Obsessive Actions and Religious Practices, Freud argued that religion was a neurosis created in an effort to fend off a fear of death. He called religion a “universal obsessional neurosis.” (The Freud Reader, p. 435) Those who truly wanted to be mentally healthy must admit that religion was a crutch created out of a need to answer questions which could not rationally be answered. If one was to be taken seriously, in Freud’s opinion, one must say good-bye to any kind of faith in God.
Freud was a genius in many ways. Because he was the pioneer in a new discipline, his voice still echoes today. All mental health professionals must consider at some point Freud’s thesis that faith is born of neurosis and is just another sign of mental fragility. For decades, mental health professionals were taught in some circles that matters of faith could only serve to illumine a patient’s mental illness. Religion was a symptom of dysfunction and not a source of support. This is very much the case in New England, where I am originally from.
If faith and the spiritual life are in themselves symptoms of deep insecurity, then they can never be part of a treatment plan for mental health. Even if you go to therapy, you must not admit to prayer or any such nonsense, lest that become another symptom of your neurosis.
At the same time, the religious community has reacted to the rise of the mental health profession with skepticism. Mental health practices have often been criticized, even as seen in direct competition with faith communities. If you want to be well, all you need to do is pray. Jesus said clearly that your faith made you well so if you are struggling with mental health issues, then you must not be praying right. Don’t go to a therapist, simply put your trust in God and God will heal you. And if you do go to a therapist, it means that you are being unfaithful. You are not putting your trust in God.
In addition, Christianity has piled on guilt and even spoken ofdamnation when addressing the mentally ill. Talk of sin and demons and evil itself has made those who suffer from mental health issues afraid to admit that they need help. Look at this cartoon…Mocking the mentally ill…
Without realizing it, the Church has accused children of God of succumbing to temptation, wallowing in sin or simply making bad choices. The formula of prayer alone as a remedy for mental health has led to shame and in many cases suicide for those who cannot find relief simply by praying. The Church has abandoned them to judgement and loneliness. St Paul taught us that all illness is community illness-that we are the body of Christ, but we have abandoned our brothers and sisters who suffer from mental health issues. Our fear of that which we do not understand has caused us to shun them, label them and force them into hiding. Like Adam and Eve in the garden, those who struggle from mental health issues find themselves running away from God and hiding for fear of showing their vulnerability in a church that has no words of comfort, nothing to wrap around their shoulders. Instead of embracing the mentally ill, we have treated them like the lepers of our day. We have treated them as if they are weak at best and evil at worst. We in the faith community have much to confess in how we have maligned and treated those who suffer from mental illness.
The mental health professionals and the faith communities have existed too long in separate silos. Both sides of this divorce have limited their resources by insisting that the mentally ill need only one disciple to find health and wellness. We have crippled ourselves in our arrogance. The shame is on us. All of us. Has not God given us the mental health profession to help us understand the human mind? And has not God given us faith communities as sources of support and strength? We make a grave error when we think that any one of us can do this alone.
Strangely, this divorce between the psychological and the spiritual did not seem to happen as deeply in the field of medicine. Other than Christian Scientists, most Americans have sought out medical care for over one hundred years. We believe in prayer, but Jews, Christians, Muslims and Hindus will all show up in the ER if they are bleeding. And many will articulate the belief that God works through the hands of surgeons and doctors and nurses. In almost every hospital parking lot, there is a space reserved for clergy. So why is the physical body fixable by doctors and clergy together while the mind must choose between a therapist and priest? Why is it that, in the mental health field, we somehow feel that we are competing for the same territory?
In order to begin the process of reconciliation between faith communities and mental health professionals, we have to begin with the concept of SHAME. We must destroy the shame that has been associated with mental illness. In the recent JCCI report entitled Unlocking the Pieces: Community Mental Health in Northeast Florida, JCCI reports that one of the greatest reasons individuals don’t seek treatment is because of the stigma that is still associated with mental health issues. “The stigma of mental illness is both pervasive and firmly entrenched in our society,” they write. This stigma leads to a lack of hope, despair and alienation. This stigma is very real and present here in Jacksonville.
How do we combat shame? We combat shame with by inviting Adam and Eve to come out of hiding. We combat shame by showing our own failings, our vulnerability. We combat shame with honesty. We combat shame with integrity. We combat shame with courage. Clergy, we must be willing to talk freely and openly about our own battles with mental health issues and the battles of our loved ones. We must, without shame or fear, show the world that even those who pray can suffer from mental health issues. Mental illness is a disease and just like a cancer patient, those who suffer from mental illness deserve our full support.
So let me begin with my own story.
This is a picture of my dad on his 70th birthday. My dad suffered from debilitating clinical depression when I was growing up. The mental health care of our day was not sufficient. He would go to bed for months, months. When I started therapy at the end of college, I thought that he had been in bed for three years, but he clarified that it was three months. That was the longest stretch. He would lie in bed with tears streaming down his face. And he would tell much, when I was far too young to hear this, that the only reason he didn’t kill himself was because he believed in God. And he believed that it was a sin to take his own life.
So I began to pray. As a very little girl, the first memory that I have of prayer is of trying to write a letter to God in my head. It was a simple letter. It read, “Dear God, Thank you for life, love Kate.” I thought that you had to write to God in your head to pray so I would lie in my bed at night, look at the birch tree outside my window and say that prayer.
And I became a priest. Freud would have a field day. It was God who kept my father alive, even if it was purely through the fear of damnation. So I dedicate my life to God. And even as a child, when I entered the church, it felt safe. I felt my worry and anxiety melt away. There was a kind of solidity, of trust-worthiness there. There were grown-ups who seemed solid and stable and who seemed to love me even when I didn’t show up for months. I found my home.
My father has tried everything: medical, therapeutic, spiritual. In his effort to find relief, I was exposed to all kinds of methods as a child. My dad took medications, all kinds of them. He had electroshock therapy, back when it was a bit rougher and caused memory loss. And we prayed. I still pray for him daily.
Why would I ever consider that my dad should only pray and not receive treatment for his depression? Does not God work in all things? Are we not called to be Christ’s hands and feet in the world? God works through the love and support of a community. God works through the gifts of mental health professionals. We are all on the same team.
Take a moment. There is a piece of paper at your table. Write down someone in your life who has suffered from mental illness. Let’s take a moment for you each to ponder who in your life has been touched by suffering in this way…
Now, turn to your table. Share a story. Model honesty. This is the only way that we can combat shame. Have courage. Talk to one another.
Give me your feedback…You impression of what it is like to talk openly to one another…
Here is JK Rowling on depression…
It is time for a change. This conference marks one step in a movement to rectify our mistakes. It is time for us to learn from one another and to seek strength in the insights of each other. Our disciplines are not at odds with one another. We are all on the same team!
We must agree with the fact that mental health is a continuum. The mind is like a garden. It must be tilled and cultivated. There is no such thing as a simply healthy mind.
Jesus often used images from nature when trying to explain our relationship to God and to each other. One image that he used over and over again was the image of the wheat and the weeds.
Just yesterday, I was pulling weeds in my overgrown Florida yard. They grow up so fast, especially when conditions are right. Our minds are full of wheat and weeds. All you need to do is sit down in silence for ten minutes and you can hear them. We have thoughts that are life-giving and thoughts that are destructive. Our job is to identify the wheat from the weeds. And notice that Jesus tells us that only God can rid us of our weeds. We can’t pull the weeds from our own minds, we cannot strip ourselves of destructive thinking or feelings of despair. But we can identify them and learn to live with them. I don’t have to listen when I tell myself that I am fat or stupid or a bad mother. I can realize that that though is a weed, planted there sometime when someone said something hurtful to me, and I can just let it be there. Worry, obsession, even addiction…weeds of the mind. Weeds can choke and even destroy a mind if left unchecked.
Doesn’t the world of therapy agree with this notion that we are to identify the weeds and get to know them? That we cannot get rid of them? And do we really think that there is a human mind out there that has no weeds? And would not we call this process of self-realization a holy process? Is not the Holy Spirit present when one human being truly listens to another?
One thing that I know about weeds is that they tend to look alike. The same weeds come up again and again and again. I pull one and another grows in its place. It is a constant battle. A healthy mind takes upkeep and analysis. We can’t just let it go. Just like the physical body needs exercise, so the mind needs observance, listening and careful cultivation.
The Bible talks clearly about the fact that we all have unclean thoughts and feelings. Even Jesus himself was tempted. It is part of what it means to be human, to be tempted. And we notice that it was Jesus who mastered his temptation before he set out to help anyone else. For we all know that you cannot truly help others if you don’t know how temptation works in your own mind.
If we could only understand that to be human is to suffer, and to be human is to grapple with mental health issues. To follow God is a process of continual discernment, constant self-reflection. Just like we care for the body, so we must care for the mind.
For the person of Jesus’ day, soul, spirit, breath were all one. There was just one word for them. In our effort to understand and dissect the human mind, we have tried to pry apart those things that coexist in a dance of mutuality. We have tried to dissect and segregate those things which are in fact one.
It is time for us to understand that we all are approaching a great mystery together and that mystery is the human mind and spirit. We come at this mystery like blind men feeling an elephant. Faith communities can help in one way. Mental health professionals in another way. We treat the same mystery from a variety of perspectives, none of us fully understanding that which only God can fully comprehend.
So I dedicate this conference to Kathy. Let her not have died in vain. Let us come together in this battle for the human spirit to be free, as God intended for us to be.
- The Very Rev. Kate Moorehead