I am deeply troubled by the “mental health” crisis rocking our nation. It has become almost chic to claim one has mental health issues.
Mood and anxiety disorder labels are far too often and too quickly assigned. Antidepressants (e.g., Prozac, Zoloft, Celexa, Paxil) and anti-anxiety meds (e.g., Xanax, Klonopin, Restoril) are all too readily prescribed.
It pains me to see so many addicts who enter our recovery program—especially young men and women—medication-dependent (it is the rule rather than the exception). The blank stares, slowed reflexes and sluggish behavior, impaired cognitive capacities.
I don’t deny mental illness. It is real, and it is serious. My dear grandmother struggled vainly with clinical depression most of her life and was hospitalized repeated times. It deeply impacted her family, especially my late mother.
I also realize that psychotropic medications can reduce the crippling effects various dysfunctions have on people as well as enable those suffering from drug and alcohol addiction to begin the journey of recovery. (It is next to impossible to start recovery when one can’t sleep and is irritable and overwhelmed with fear, gloom, and other life-extracting emotions.)
But we must be careful not to equate mental health issues with spiritual issues.
There is more to pathology than psychology and physiology.
But a little of my own story first.
I have never been caving, nor do I ever want to.
I enjoy outdoor activities, but I have a thing about small, tight spaces. I have never been diagnosed with claustrophobia, but I’m sure I’m on the spectrum.
Several years ago, I was experiencing a festering inner restlessness and frustration. I did my best to push through this season and keep my game face, but the growing turbulence within would not go away.
Something was amiss.
But I didn’t know what.
Maybe I needed a change of scenery? A new job? Different ministry?
Perhaps a Sabbatical or a change in my diet and exercise patterns?
Maybe a refilling of the Holy Spirit (whatever that means)? Formational prayer? Meditation exercises? Healing from childhood wounds? Finding my True Self?
These can all be important pathways to greater wholeness and emotional vitality, but I couldn’t get away from feeling trapped. Uptight. Lonely. Bored.
I was trying, and I was suffocating.
In God’s gracious providence, a set of circumstances converged, and I returned to seminary in 2017 to pursue a doctoral degree. Little did I know that in the halls of academia I would find my peace.
I started studying with different tribes of the “holy catholic church” and became exposed to fresh ideas. I began seeing things in new ways. Many of my long-held paradigms of God were dismantled.
My playbook got ruined.
I had more questions and less answers.
Less certainty but more possibilities.
And strangely, I was born again (again).
I was able to breathe freely. The world got bigger. I got smaller.
Mystery became my healing.
I came to later realize that I had been suffering from “theological and ecclesiastical claustrophobia” (my self-diagnosis).
I am grateful for the rich spiritual heritage I inherited. It provided the strength and security needed for the first half of my life, but it now was becoming a prison.
The simplicity. The binary thinking. The pat answers. The repetition. . . It was all getting exhausting.
I needed space. Expanse. Depth. Wonder.
I believe the angst in my being was like a flock of canaries alerting me to something dangerous in the subterranean of my soul.
God was gone. The fear of him was missing.
God had become too familiar, too predictable—that is, my understanding and experience of God.
Now back to “mental illness.”
Theologians recognize that there is within each of us a fundamental dis-ease. A nervousness and disquiet. An ache for Love, Beauty, Truth. St. Augustine of Hippo (354—430) spoke of it, “Thou hast created us for thyself, O God, so that our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee.”
To be human is to have a soul—a soul that yearns for Holiness, Awe.
We are living in a flattened universe, however. Welcome to the Secular Age. Modernism and scientificism have edged God out of the picture. If God is not altogether dead, God is certainly irrelevant.
What does this have to do with mental illness? The theory and language of addiction and recovery are controlled by secular categories. Problems are reduced to the medical, psychological, and sociological.
So much for the supernatural. No room for Transcendence.
Machine over miracle. Matter over mystery.
“Gutted of glory,” the world has become sterile. Gray. Hollow. Hostile.
No wonder there is so much stress, hopelessness, and unwellness.
The unease, unsettledness, and fragility we feel have been incorrectly named. We call it mental illness, but it is really disenchantment. Psychologist Richard Beck writes, “The only language young people have for God is the language of mental illness. When they say ‘anxiety’ or ‘depression,’ they are expressing a desire for God.”
This misunderstanding is tragic.
The pains we feel are like canaries pointing us to a problem—one that cannot be relieved by drugs, therapy, anger management, yoga, and support groups.
I am not denying or minimizing the devastating consequences of abuse, violence, loss, systemic injustice, racism, poverty, etc. and the lasting imprint they can have on the brain. Trauma is real. Mental illness is real.
Medication may be necessary. Therapy critical.
But there is more—Infinitely more—going on.
We must not be content with popular answers. I refuse to accept the triumph of the secular frame where the medical and psychological are given preeminence. To acquiesce is not only a disservice to people bound in self-destructive ways. It is a grave disrespect to men and women who bear God’s image and hold his breathe.
We need Splendor. Greatness. Majesty.
Blaise Pascal (1623—1662) put it like this, “The infinite abyss within us can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.”
God created us with an innate hunger for him. We must we reclaim our spiritual longing and not mistake it for a mental health issue.
We can deny or ignore this Reality and content ourselves with drowning in the sea of endless distractions our culture provides, or we can let this inner dissatisfaction lead us to our true home, the secret place of the Most High.
Encounter with God cannot be manufactured. There is no one set course or formula. God meets us on his terms. Notwithstanding, God is mindful and sensitive to how he has wired us and meets us in ways that conform to our uniqueness. For me, the Alpha and Omega reveals himself most often through books and nature. For you, it may be through serving the least of these, or art, rituals, and sacraments, or maybe contemplation. God has no limits.
May we simply be open and may we let our Ache lead us to the Ancient of Days, for only in seeing this One will the deepest desires of our heart be met. The way back may be long. The road tumultuous. But we must not give up. We must trust. God wants to meet us more than we could ever imagine.
We must also be prepared. Yahweh God is no Sunday-school God, no genie-in-a-bottle that we can pull out when convenient. In the words of C.S. Lewis, he is good, but he is not safe.
There is no shame in taking medication. It is not a sign of weakness or lack of faith. You may need anti-depressant and/or anti-anxiety meds temporarily or for the rest of your life. Do not do something drastic without wise counsel. At the same time, be inquisitive. Ask yourself, What is underneath this pain? Could it be my longing for Immensity, Immeasurability?
Like the prophet Isaiah of old, we need an encounter with God that wrecks us.
And makes us whole.
“On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside the catacombs,
sufficiently sensible of the conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea
what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it?
The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets,
mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning.
It is madness to wear ladies straw hats and velvet hats to church;
we should all be wearing crash helmets.
Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares;
they should lash us to our pews.”