The care of the insane has presented major challenges to Western civilization in the past sixty years. With the advancement of psychopharmacology, the insane have been sent back into communities hoping for an “ordinary” life. But the ordinary life has been challenging and mostly out of their grasp. The road from the mental institutions did not lead to a home filled with love, peace, and patience for a troubled mind. The road led with great regularity to a half-way house, or to homelessness in the shadows of our glittering cities, and at times to incarceration for petty crimes.
Many of the mentally-distressed are quite vulnerable, have no support system, and no caring community to lean on. In addition to their trauma, they have to deal with the loss of friends, rejection, ridicule, vanished self-esteem and utter bewilderment about what has happened to them. The cruelty of their new life steals them of their dignity, humanity, and hope. The reality of their life is that their psychiatric condition never leaves them. At best, they learn how to go through the days one after the other, coping with their illness, which has been stamped on their forehead for a lifetime. But is that the best we can do as a society and as the church of Christ? There should be no rest for Christians as long as the picture is so grim for some of our own.
Fortunately, there is an alternative path, a “road less travelled,” which is hopeful, transformational, beyond mere coping, targeting recovery, and a life that has meaning and purpose. The opportunity lies before the church to answer the call to partake in God’s redemptive plan, to be his “fellow workers” in “building up the body of Christ,” by embracing those whose spirit and personhood are under attack by forces of darkness (1 Cor.3:9; Eph.4:12).
With the epidemic of mental illness in America, perhaps it is time for the church to awaken to its responsibility of the “care of souls.” It is time for the church to call madness what the experience of the sufferers has proven it to be: a true experience of hell and slavery to forces of evil, rather than what we wish it to be—a pathology that excuses us from any responsibility and accountability.
In my book, In The Fellowship of His Suffering, I build up on successful global programs of care for the sufferers of mental illness, and offer a fresh model based on faith in Christ, and love and compassion within the body of Christ, so that we may make space in our hearts and our homes to care for the most oppressed among us, as though we are caring for Christ. As Christ said, “Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me” (Matt25:40).
For an incredible moment in history when humanity, love, and compassion won over conventional wisdom, I invite you to read this look back at the story of Geel, a little Belgian town that changed the paradigm for the treatment of the mentally ill, and why its medieval methods were so successful.
As mental illness proliferates and outpaces the psychiatric resources available to manage it, Geel’s story offers a vision, in equal parts sobering and inspiring, of what the alternative might look like.