As Mental Health Awareness Month draws to a close, we asked Dr Marion Carson to lead us in reflection. Marion is a Senior Research Fellow at IBTS and currently serves as Chaplain to Glasgow City Mission. Read what she had to say below:
Mental Health and Faith in Uncertain Times
According to the World Health Organisation, mental health is
“a state of mental well-being that enables people to cope with the stresses of life, realize their abilities, learn well and work well, and contribute to their community.”
In the normal run of things, most of us, most of the time, are able “to cope with the stresses of life, realize our abilities, learn and work well, and contribute to their community.” We are able to get on with life and do the things we have to do. However, most, if not all of us, also go through periods when life becomes overwhelming and we find it difficult to cope. With the help of our families and communities we are able to navigate through these times and resume our everyday activities. Some of us may have periods when specialised medical, social and pastoral care is required.
Mental health challenges are a part of “normal” life. We will all be affected in some way or other, at some time or other, and Christians have a responsibility to care for one another when things get tough. At present, however, life for many is far from “normal”. There is much conflict in the world and a great deal of economic uncertainty and hardship. Many people find themselves displaced, forced to leave all that they know in order to survive. Others find themselves isolated and alone in a world too busy to notice. In such circumstances we may well feel that our mental wellbeing is being severely undermined and that it is difficult to cope. Where does faith fit in when we are struggling to get through?
The 19th century English Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins had his fair share of mental health problems, and he wrote about them in his poetry. In “No Worst there is none” he wrote
“O the mind, mind has mountains, cliffs of fall,
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed”
For me, these words capture the roller coaster of thoughts and emotions which so many people are experiencing as we face so much uncertainty. Whatever our circumstances, there may be emotional highs and lows, and our thoughts can take us to places we do not want to go. The highs might be exhilarating, but the lows, as Hopkins writes, can be like falling down a sheer cliff straight into darkness, and it can be very hard to climb back out. We lose perspective and get lost in our anxieties and fears, regrets and self-condemnation.
In the same poem, Hopkins asks,
“Comforter, where, where is your comforting?”
He cannot sense God’s presence; he feels lost and alone. Any consolation that his faith has given him in the past seems to have gone. So where is the comfort that God promises? When we are experiencing anxiety, fear and low mood, isolation and loneliness it can be tempting to reproach ourselves for being weak Christians and even to think that God has left us. But in Romans 8:26 Paul tells us that is it precisely when we are weak that the Holy Spirit is working: “The Spirit”, he says, “helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.” When our thoughts and emotions are climbing mountains and falling down cliffs, when we are wondering where God is, these words bring us hope. We are not left to our own devices - the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, is praying for us and working for us in ways we cannot understand.
Later in the letter, Paul gives a blessing. In it he builds on the message of hope that knowledge of the Spirit working on our behalf brings. Whether you yourself or someone you are caring for is struggling just now, it is my prayer that his words will bring some comfort to you.
“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in Him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit”