Then he went home, and the crowd gathered again, so that they could not even eat. And when his family heard it, they went out to seize him, for they were saying, “He is out of his mind.” Mark 3:20-21 (ESV)
One recent Sunday morning, my pastor taught from this passage, observing the irony of Jesus being judged out of his mind when he is the only one ever to be fully in his right mind!
This got me thinking about mental health, and here we are in Mental Health Awareness Month.
Let me start by saying that I have no business writing on a topic I know so little about. Though I have been confronted by people’s mental and behavioral struggles over many years as pastor, chaplain, and friend, I have little training in counseling those with mental health challenges and minimal personal experience of the trials this complex disorder presents.
But the pastor’s message stirred my awareness when he noted that these were Jesus’ own family members—devout ones like Mary, Joseph, Elizabeth, and Zechariah—who were getting him wrong. And it was the Torah scribes and other faith leaders who diagnosed Jesus with a demon—again, getting him wrong. Then there was his #1 disciple, Simon Peter, who insisted Jesus the Messiah was confused when he said he had to suffer and die. How wrong Simon was about his Master.
This and quite a few other Bible passages point to the reality of mental health diagnoses that we either wrongly presume or miss altogether. While we can be sure that the perfect Son of God was always in His right mind, we can also see that, for our sake, he bore the stigma of others’ presumption that He must be out of His mind. And stigma is something we need to talk about.
Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God. My soul is cast down within me; therefore, I remember you from the land of Jordan and of Hermon, from Mount Mizar. Deep calls to deep at the roar of your waterfalls; all your breakers and your waves have gone over me. By day the Lord commands his steadfast love, and at night his song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life. Psalm 42:5-8 (ESV)
These Holy Spirit-inspired words are expressed by a descendant of Korah as a confession of his depression in the midst of seeking God. That’s real.
Do you remember Korah? He was the guy who led a rebellion against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness, leading to the earth opening and swallowing him alive. Somehow the family name survived, and now this depressed worshipper bears that shamed appellation.
Talk about a stigma…
I have been able to rest and reflect at the very place where this struggling Israelite wrote his forlorn yet hopeful song. It’s called Tel Dan, and it is in far northern Israel. The psalmist frames the setting quite well with reference to the Jordan’s upper headwaters under the neighboring peaks of Mt. Hermon and Mt. Mizar. The thunderous waterfalls calling deep to deep are at nearby Caesarea Philippi. The “breakers and waves” are not the beach as we might imagine but roiling, cascading waters that burst forth from scores of snow-melt springs saturating the region.
The imagery helps us relate to the inner battle the psalmist expresses from a lowly state of mind. He laments, “My soul [mind] is cast down within me” as the rushing waters have “gone over me,” evocative of the overwhelming feeling of drowning in one’s own thoughts.
Yet that same water, because it is flowing and not stagnant, is considered “living water.” Thus, the same imagery reveals the lifeline that is always within reach, for channels off the overwhelming waters form meandering streams and placid pools where man and beast are refreshed in body and restored in soul. The struggling psalmist opens and closes his worship this way…
As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God…Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God. Psalm 42:1,2,11 (ESV)
What then is our task? I believe it is to hold out the hope of praising God while erasing the stigma that cultured society assigns to the precious mentally troubled among us.
A stigma is a mark of shame or discredit. How could a believer paint such a stain on a hurting fellow image-bearer?
This highly complex body that my highly complex soul resides in is subject to a myriad of malfunctions in this fallen world. I have a disorder called arthritis in my knees—stiffness, but no stigma. My thyroid is defective—no one can tell, so no stigma there. I’ve had several skin maladies that looked weird—no major stigma though. Then there are my faulty eyes—I just throw stylish glasses on for that problem, and look… no stigma!
Then why the social stigma when a disorder hits the brain?
I heard Dr. Matthew Stanford, an accomplished neuroscientist and Christ-follower, explain that we assign stigma to things we think we understand, then project our presumed solution onto others. Mental health is an easy target for this error. Like…
When I’m feeling down, I can recognize the problem and do something to pick myself up again. Bicycling or running usually does the trick. But then I project that “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” motivation on another who might not even have bootstraps to pull on.
Dr. Stanford again: “The brain can be damaged to the point of altering our thoughts and feelings, and it can be treated…For example, we do not know what causes [type 1] diabetes. We only know what is damaged by the disease, and we treat the symptoms. It’s the same thing with mental health problems. We do not know exactly what causes schizophrenia, but we do know the outcomes neurochemically and we have medications that can minimize those symptoms. How is that any different from [type 1] diabetes?”
It’s not, we must admit. Then let me confess, and invite you to confess with me…
As pastor, chaplain, and friend, I have furthered the social stigma of mental illness by not always recognizing the medical condition for what it is and pointing a person toward the medical help they need, and that God has provided. Though I have offered biblical counsel, prayer, and Godly encouragement—all right and helpful things—I have at times missed symptoms that say a person also needs medical attention. Rather than overcoming the stigma, I have let the mark of shame remain on my brother or sister.
So, let’s make a difference and let Mental Health Awareness Month challenge us, the ones who name the Name of Jesus, on how we can promote the mental, as well as the spiritual, health of the hurting ones God gives us to love.
If you are a Medi-Share member struggling and need someone to talk to, please take advantage of our mental health counseling services via phone by logging into your Member Center and clicking on Talk to a Counselor on the left hand menu today.