Thoughts on Mental Illness, Troubled Soul, and our Human Frailty

By Pastor Bob Myers

April is the cruelest month, breeding
lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
memory and desire, stirring
dull roots with spring rain.
”― T.S. Eliot

 I don’t know whether it’s the absolute cruelest month, but I do think T.S. Eliot, (a Christian by the way), was on to something. By April we Pennsylvanians feel good weather-deprived. Desperate for some sunny and warm days. Breaking down right before the break-through.

If this is a gray season, we may also be living through a gray era, a kind of “dark ages of the spirit”. A Sociologist described us as “more prosperous materially than ever, but more troubled in spirit.” The disconnect between our material comforts which have risen to new heights and our mental comfort which has plummeted to new lows is striking. Mental suffering is afflicting young people. Eight-year-olds are regularly prescribed anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications. Middle school girls have the highest suicide rate and it is still climbing. Young men in their twenties are experiencing anxiety disorders and depression at epidemic levels.

Scientific data can’t explain why? Many suspect a correlation between screen time and emotional frailty. Others cite the constant consumption of news in various forms. People who have cable news on more than 30 minutes a day are less emotionally stable than those who don’t.  

1.    Christians are not immune to this:  "We do not believe in a Mental Prosperity Gospel, where God rewards His faithful ones with a sense of well-being and good cheer. A good many of the saints were as close to God as they could come -- Mother Teresa comes to mind -- and yet they struggled constantly against the darkness. Depression and mental illness are not a sign of personal sin, but one of many signs of the weakness we all inherited when Adam sinned." ― SIMCHA FISHER

2.    Honor the perception that depression brings, but challenge the solution that depression suggests. 
Sometimes depression means that we are more perceptive of life and life’s complexities. Here are some examples:  Hannah was motivated to pray out her grief over her barrenness. Hannah replied, “I am a woman who is deeply troubled. I have not been drinking wine or beer; I was pouring out my soul to the Lord. (1 Samuel 1:15) In Gethsemane Jesus prayed with a soul wracked with grief. And He said to them, “My soul is deeply grieved to the point of death; remain here and keep watch.”  (Mark 14:34) Depression makes us more deeply aware sometimes. That’s a good thing. But depression comes up with terrible solutions for that awareness.   

3.    Any one of us could come into a situation that renders us suicidal.  Prominent saints sometimes sought death due to their painful perceptions of reality (Elijah, Jonah). The idea that death is the answer is completely wrong.  But the pain in the heart is real.  

David Foster Wallace wrote eloquently on this matter, and then years later, tragically, took his own life. "The so-called ‘psychotically depressed’ person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of quote ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing. The person in whom its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise. Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don’t!’ and ‘Hang on!’, can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.

4.     Suicide is always a permanent solution to a temporary problem, and a solution that causes far more problems and solves none.

Studies have been done on those who survived dramatic suicide attempts. Nearly all of them share that they immediately regretted their choice. Subjects who actually jumped from a bridge recall the regret occurs almost immediately, even while in the air.

One suicide survivor who jumped off the Golden gate bridge put it this way:  “I instantly realized that everything in my life that I’d thought was unfixable was totally fixable—except for having just jumped.”(New Yorker Magazine, Jumpers, by Ted Friend, October 13th, 2003).  

5.    If you have thoughts of self-harm, if life feels like it’s just too much for you, if you feel blue most of the time without reason, or feel like you’re stuck with thoughts that depress and deflate your normal life, get help. You may need to ask a friend to dial the number that makes the appointment. Yes, for this we have Jesus, but sometimes we get paralyzed and need friends to lift us up and lower the roof so we can get to Jesus. Out yourself to your safest friend, or to a professional counselor or your family doctor. Make that phone call.  Don’t let yourself suffer another day alone in secret.   

"He is near to the broken hearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit." Psalm 34:18