My husband received a call this morning informing us that an old friend (whom I call Carl) had killed himself with a gunshot in his own bed. As you can imagine I was deeply rattled, saddened, and shocked by the news, but I was not surprised.
Carl was a man in his early forties, quite attractive, very friendly, and quite vulnerable. He suffered from mental illness with a diagnosis of “bipolar disorder,” and had been taking medications for many years. He was a professing Christian and attended our church years ago. He suffered from diabetes and obesity, which might have been related to the psychiatric drugs he was taking, or just lack of attention to his diet and overall welfare. He was a private man and did not talk publicly about his physical health or lack of it.
Like many others who suffer from severe mental illnesses, he was going through life without any friends or family. His mother and his only sister who were close to him had died a few years ago. He is survived by a brother who, as far as I know, was not very close to him. He had a hard time keeping steady work and managing his finances. He was very lonely and finally the pressures of life became too much to bear, and in the loneliness of his bedroom he put an end to a life filled with pain and despair.
Some might ask, “What happened to his faith in God?” Some will cruelly judge him, saying, “He can’t have been a real Christian or he would’ve not killed himself.” I am in no position to judge his heart or actions.
Carl is just one example among many. For those of us who have had the misfortune of having a loved one be treated in a mental hospital, the image of having many Christians walking in those dark corridors, talking to God, Jesus, or Satan is not an unfamiliar scene. Mental hospitals in this country are filled with lonely Christians, who are labeled as pathological and crazy, and who are rarely understood by those around them.
Today I want to talk about how we as a church have failed Carl, and people like him.
Most of the people labeled with severe mental illnesses such as “schizophrenia” or “bipolar disorder” live very lonely lives. They are abandoned by friends, their church, society at large, and often even families who are overwhelmed by the enormity of the task at hand. Many of them are criminalized and spend their time in prisons for petty crimes. After the widespread deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill in the 1950s, these people were sent back to their communities to live “normal” lives, with the hope that through antipsychotic medications they could manage their symptoms and live functional lives. But these illnesses are not that simple!
Nils Christie, who has worked for many years among those with mental challenges speaks of this movement back to the society as follows:
The insane back to the families was the slogan, but those families were not the same. . . . They were not large anymore; they did not provide free service from females permanently at home. The road from the mental hospital did not lead to a home filled with life and vivacity. The road led with great regularity to a room in a boarding house in the center of the city. Or it led to an existence as a bag-lady, homeless and with all belongings in some plastic bags, strolling the streets of our glittering, modern towns. Or it led to another type of institution—to prison.
Many of these individuals “are quite vulnerable, and 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.”  It is the cruelty of their new life that drifts them toward anonymous street life in our inner-cities, with their living space limited to a cardboard box. Among them are college graduates, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, sons, daughters, and many of them former church members, hiding in darkness among the multitude of the inhabitants of “cardboard cities.”  The enormity of the pain and suffering that these souls and their families experience is beyond the grasp of the average citizen.
Where is the church in this picture?
Instead of questioning the faith of people like Carl who give up on life because the burden is too heavy for them to carry by themselves, we in the church must question our own faith. We witness their despairing lives and turn our faces away and move on, attending our church services, our fellowship potlucks, our Bible studies, and our mission trips to help those thousands of miles away from us. Don’t get me wrong! I am not against Bible studies or fellowship with other Christians, or mission trips to forgotten places in the world. They are all wonderful gestures of our faith. But how can we turn away our faces and pass by on the other side as a certain priest and the Levite did (Luke 10: 31-32) when all around us are those suffering from severe mental illnesses? Most of us think: “Well, they are sick people and need to take their medication, and listen to their doctors. I’ll pray for them, but there is not much I can do for them!” But things are not that easy and for you to understand the complexity involved the conversation would have to go way beyond this post.
What matters when Christians are battling severe illnesses is not simply to defeat the problem and get back to one’s daily routines. The victory does not lie merely in getting rid of the pain and suffering at all costs, but in persevering in the face of such challenges and clinging to one’s deep conviction of what it means to worship God faithfully and surrender to Him while hanging on the cross. What matters most is that when Christians encounter the sick and hopeless, “they take it upon themselves,” as Joel Shuman suggests, “to make space in their lives” to care for those persons as if they were caring for Christ Himself; for in reality such illnesses are more than an individualistic encounter. Severe mental illnesses such as “schizophrenia” and “bipolar disorder” heighten our awareness about human condition, brokenness, sin, evil, the mystical body of Christ, our connections to each other, and our own desperate need for grace and redemption.
For Fourteen years I have cared for my daughter who has been labeled with the diagnosis of “schizophrenia,” and I must add they have been fourteen treacherous, heart-wrenching years. I am certainly not a saint (except by God’s grace) and I am probably a greater sinner than most of my Christian brothers and sisters. How did I do it? God strengthened me and revealed Himself and His tender love everyday as I faced the evil that has for so long engulfed my precious daughter. It was through this journey that I learned the preciousness of the gift of faith. I learned then when God bestows such a gift of faith, He expects a willingness to sacrifice no less than one’s life. Caring for my darling daughter, Helia, brought me to my knees, shattered most of my idols, and opened my eyes not only to the world of spiritual evil but also to God’s glory and majesty. Caring for Helia pierced my heart and penetrated my soul with a knowing of why Christ had to die for me and for Helia, beyond what any theology book had taught me in my formal education. Martin Luther, in his usual no-nonsense way, explains this well:
Faith is a living, bold trust in God’s grace, so certain of God’s favor that it would risk death a thousand times trusting in it. Such confidence and knowledge of God’s grace makes you happy, joyful and bold in your relationship to God and all creatures. The Holy Spirit makes this happen through faith. Because of it, you freely, willingly and joyfully do good to everyone, serve everyone, suffer all kinds of things, love and praise the God who has shown you such grace. Thus, it is just as impossible to separate faith and works as it is to separate heat and light from fire! Therefore, watch out for your own false ideas and guard against good-for-nothing gossips, who think they’re smart enough to define faith and works, but really are the greatest of fools. Ask God to work faith in you, or you will remain forever without faith, no matter what you wish, say or can do.
It takes a precious God-given faith to not give up and care for one another in this battle. It is important to note that more than any other people those suffering from mental illness often suffer from lack of a spiritual sense of God’s presence. They often seemingly have no access to God’s grace and are taken over by despair, hopelessness, and darkness. These are truly souls in need of loving care and the healing touch of Christ.
Who is best positioned to love them and attend to them but the church? It is the church, like no other body, that can exhibit how far God’s mercy can reach. If the church ignores this responsibility, it has ignored the invitation of Christ to attend to the “least of the brethren” (Matt.25:40).
 Nils Christie, Beyond Loneliness and Institutions: Communes For Extraordinary People (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2007), 99-100.
 Elahe Hessamfar, In The Fellowship of His Suffering: A Theological Interpretation of Mental Illness—A Focus on “Schizophrenia” (Eugene, Oregon: CASCADE Books, 2014), 252.
 Marion Carson, “Loving, Discernment, and Distance: Pastoral Care in Schizophrenia,” Journal of Pastoral Care & Counseling 60:3 (September 1, 2006), 227–39.
 Joel James Shuman, The Body of Compassion: Ethics, Medicine, and the Church (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1999), xvi.
 Martin Luther’s Definition of Faith, http://www.ligonier.org/blog/martin-luthers-definition-faith/
John Watson Jr. says
Son has was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Your site is a life saver.
Elahe Hessamfar says
I share your pain. May God bless you and your son with His grace and comfort!