Mental Illness Is Not a Sin. So Why the Shame?


Mental illness is not a sin. So why the shame? According to Lea Seigen Shinraku, MFT, “Shame conflates feeling ‘bad’ with being ‘bad.’” “You feel bad, therefore you are bad” (See the article, “When You Feel Shame About Your Mental Illness” by Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S. at PsychCentral).

Shame causes us to isolate ourselves from others. It does not help that in our culture, we often associate mental illness with weakness and character flaws. There is also the fear that sometimes those with mental illnesses are responsible for violent, fatal outbursts. The isolation only intensifies—self-inflicted and inflicted by others.

While the church is not a hospital or a clinic that can prescribe medication, it can prescribe care and understanding. Henri Nouwen wrote, “A minister is not a doctor whose primary task is to take away pain. Rather, he deepens the pain to a level where it can be shared” (See Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society {New York: Image, 1979}, pages 92–93). As we share our struggles with compassionate, trustworthy and transparent others, not only do we lessen our sense of isolation, but also we realize that everyone has struggles of various kinds. No one is completely normal—not even psychotherapists. As one psychotherapist, Annita Sawyer, writes in the Columbia Medical Review, all too often medical experts shroud their own psychological issues and struggles to protect their reputations and careers. Given their status, if they could be more open in appropriate ways, it would lessen the sense of stigma and shame, and help others address their struggles and pursue treatment (See “All about us: Acknowledging mental illness, psychotherapy, stigma, and shame”). What is truly abnormal is when we are not allowed to think, feel or share our struggles with one another. Isolation is the worst disease.

Remember, too, that even the Lord Jesus was accused of being out of his mind and demon-possessed (Mark 3:20-30, John 8:48-49). Perhaps this was one reason he—the suffering servant—was a man of sorrows and familiar with suffering (Isaiah 53:3). Perhaps it was also a reason why he was such an able physician of body and soul. Even in the case of the demoniac, whom Jesus restored to full health in body and mind, Jesus alone engaged him (not his community) rather than isolate him further; in fact, after his restoration, Jesus encouraged him to remain in his community to declare what God had done for him (Luke 8:26-39). Jesus confronted isolation as the greatest illness.

Our own struggles with mental illness and other related forms of suffering may never go completely away this side of the grave. But may we never move away from one another, but care for one another, just as Jesus cares for each of us.

The church is a haven for saints and a hospital for sinners. Are we also good clinics of compassion for mental illness? A pastor friend of mine adept at addressing these matters has said that all too often the church is good at addressing sicknesses from the neck down, but rather poor at addressing sicknesses from the neck up. As the community of Jesus, the Wounded Healer, we need to continue to grow in our understanding and care for one another, including in matters pertaining to mental illness. The Institute for the Theology of Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins will be partnering with Gateway Church, Portland, next Wednesday evening, April 20th, from 7:00-8:30 PM in seeking to foster greater understanding, compassion and how to work with medical practitioners and counselors in caring for those with mental illnesses in our midst. Please join us for “Holistic Approaches to Mental Illness.” The forum is in association with New Wine’s conference at Multnomah Biblical Seminary in cooperation with the American Association for the Advancement of Science, “Church and Science: Partners for the Common Good,” April 16th and 23rd.


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