January can be a particularly difficult time for those facing mental health struggles. Rev Prebendary Dr Isabelle Hamley, co-author of Struggling With God, explores how Jesus’ response to Bartimeus can help inform our thinking in this area
Mental health is trendy. From joint appearances between Ed Sheeran and the younger royals to social media posts full of inspirational messages on wellbeing to many stories of personal struggles on TikTok, Facebook and X (formally Twitter), the acknowledgement that life isn’t easy is everywhere. But is this helpful? Is it good to see glossy celebrities in comfortable places talk of their struggles? Is it helpful for deeply personal anguish to be poured out in the posts and pictures of social media?
At one level, yes it is, because it means that talking about mental health challenges is no longer taboo. It is OK not to be OK. Or is it? Talk of mental health on social media is still curated and filtered, because to post on social media is to ask for something in return: likes, re-shares, sympathy, shock, offers of help. It is not quite the raw pain that overwhelms behind closed doors. And it does not necessarily translate into sympathetic employers, or in friends who walk the distance with those who struggle.
Mental health struggles
Being open about mental health challenges is one step. But to address stigma, and to begin to attend to one another’s stories, pain and need, is much more costly, complicated and demanding – which is precisely why stigma is difficult to address. And yet fighting stigma is a core task, for the sake of justice, and in terms of a deeply Christian calling to love our neighbour.
Many of us will face mental health challenges of our own some time in our life. Statistics tell us that much. And all of us will have loved ones, friends, family, colleagues, who struggle with mental health, many of whom will not say in public quite how much this costs them in private.
Mental health struggles come in all shapes and sizes, from anxiety and depression to major mental illness. Sufferers on the whole spectrum will have heard their struggles met with facile answers: if you’re anxious, take a deep breath and relax; if you struggle with depression, count your blessings; if you’re a Christian, pray about it; if you hear voices, maybe you need deliverance. Those with more severe forms of mental health challenges are often perceived as strange, and shunned a little, partly because their struggles remind us of our own fragility, powerlessness and vulnerability.
Resisting the urge to fix
Yet there is also good news. Many churches offer unconditional welcome and love, and a place to belong for those who struggle. The Renew Wellbeing project, founded by Ruth Rice, has pioneered safe spaces in churches where it’s OK not to be OK, by emphasising being with, rather than trying to fix, others.
Resisting the temptation to want to fix is difficult. Often Christianity can be perceived as a “fixing” faith: God fixes our sin, our dysfunction, our problems, through Jesus. In other words – Jesus is the answer. But for those struggling with mental health challenges, sometimes church is the problem. And sometimes God is the problem, because God does not necessarily feel close or respond to prayer in any discernible way, and faith does not take the shape that is often expected or recommended.
Worship can be hard, rejoicing absent, and finding words for prayer impossible. So what do you do when you struggle with God? And how can our churches be places where it’s OK not to be OK, and where we hold fast to the transformative power of the love of God?
I am tempted to say: Jesus is the answer. But not in the way we often think! Jesus is the answer, because going back to the stories of the Gospels, to the example of how Jesus comes alongside those who struggle, can give us a pattern for thinking about our own behaviour, approach and capacity for compassion.
I love the story of Jesus healing the man born blind in John 9. It isn’t a story about mental health. But it could easily be, and the principles still hold.
The man born blind, Bartimeus, is ignored and passed by. People don’t notice him, and if they do, they talk about him, rather than to him. The disciples simply assume that being blind must be a result of sin. They do not know him, do not take the time to get to know him. They do not see him as a person, just a diagnosis. They do not think of him as someone who can contribute to life and society, let alone spirituality. His humanity is reduced to this one aspect of his life, thinned out, hollowed out.
Jesus, in contrast, notices. He “sees” the man. The word is not innocuous: countless times in the Old Testament, God sees the plight of his people – and acts. Seeing here means noticing, attending to reality, not letting prejudice, busyness or fear prevent us from recognising others as fellow human beings. Jesus then treats the man as an agent: he speaks to him and gives him direction to follow.
We may think little of this; but this man, who had been disregarded and considered unable to do much apart from begging, is treated as an adult, as a person able to participate in his own healing. We’re moving from a thin perspective to a thicker, fuller one. And Jesus firmly discounts any theory that blames the man, or his parents, for his condition.
Bystanders find it hard to follow suit. When the man comes back, they keep trying to talk about him, and he persists in speaking for himself, and as he finds his voice, he challenges misconceptions. He refuses to continue to live under the prejudices and projections of others. In the course of the story, surrounded by religious teachers, he articulate a searingly clear picture of the person of Jesus: “’Lord, I believe.’ And he worshipped him.”
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What do we make of this? Jesus’ actions here speak of confronting stigma and prejudice, and speak of restoring the full humanity of the one who had been thinned out, not by his condition, but by the behaviour of others towards it. Jesus in contrast sees, notices, makes space for this man to grow, speak for himself, and articulate his own understanding of his life, and share his understanding of God.
The “healing” makes little difference to the attitudes of those around him. Stigma sticks beyond reason and confrontation. The crowd has a vested interest in maintaining their perception: to move away from their explanations for someone else’s condition would mean accepting that life is more random, less predictable, less controllable than they had anticipated. That God was less predictable, too, that God is free, and other, and beyond human comprehension. Maybe they could experience adverse circumstances too. So could their children. Stigma somehow shores up their sense of safety, and gives them permission not to help, and justify their hard-heartedness.
Stigma works in the same way for mental health challenges. It reduces people to diagnoses, to certain behaviours or conditions. To follow in the way of Jesus and to nurture hospitable communities means making space to truly see, or notice, one another as full people. It means becoming aware of the ways in which we protect ourselves by diminishing others. It means going beyond the surface, and seeing the other as a gift: someone who has something to contribute to our common life, and someone whose spirituality can help us see something we ourselves might be missing about God, one another, and the wider world.
It means always being open to God surprising us, whether we are the one struggling, or the one standing alongside, with grace, love and insight. Fighting stigma is core to our mission as we join with God in God’s work of bringing in the kingdom.
Rev Prebendary Dr Isabelle Hamley is secretary for theology and theological adviser to the House of Bishops. She is passionate about the Old Testament and the importance of scripture to the life of the Church. Isabelle has written on the Bible and mental health, and on matters of justice, violence and faith. She recently co-authored Struggling With God alongside Christopher CH Cook and John Swinton.