Last year Antony Sheehan joined the Church Health Center as president. He comes to us with a long background in mental and behavioral health. I am pleased to share his reflections today and next week.
What do we see in the life and ministry of Jesus that might help Christian churches respond in ways that bridge spirituality and issues of mental health more effectively? Let me suggest four points of consideration.
1. People came to Jesus for healing, and Jesus healed willingly. The gospel writers tell us that news spread widely of Jesus’ healing miracles, and the list of diseases Jesus healed included conditions like epilepsy and demon possession, which we would put in the category of mental illness today. The question arises whether demon possession and mental illness equate. If we get too distracted with that inquiry, though, we miss the point that the gospel writers present Jesus as interested in healing every manifestation of suffering. People with mental illness came to Jesus, or others brought them, and he healed them.
2. Jesus urged people to “walk the talk.” Jesus said of the Pharisees, “Do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach (Matthew 23:3). People with mental, emotional, or substance disorders often become desperate for healing and will try anything. In our care for them and encouraging their spirituality, we must be careful not to add to their burdens.
3. Jesus included people on the outskirts. The “sinners,” ritually unclean lepers, women and children with no standing in the social structure of the time—Jesus welcomed them all. Acceptance and welcome are at the heart of the gospel. Today we might add people with mental illness to the list of people living in the margins of society, even though the truth is one in four people will see care for a mental illness at some point in their lives. Are we welcoming them?
4. Jesus included healing in his ministry on a consistent basis. Jesus taught about the kingdom of God by telling parables. He also demonstrated the kingdom when he healed. He gave people beautiful pictures of the hope and healing God wants for them.
Churches have these examples in their sacred texts. It is not difficult to see that churches, full of people who believe these teachings, can also be places that embody hope and healing for every kind of illness. Linking healthcare structures with faith communities harnesses the strengths of both.