Bearing each other’s burdens: when social isolation takes its toll

As we in the UK approach the end of a fourth month in lockdown, restrictions are being relaxed and the number of COVID infections and death appears to be steadily declining, yet we are by no means out of danger.

Even those who have not been infected may have found themselves at risk in other ways. Some are unable to work and struggling to get by. Some are trapped in an abusive home. Children are missing out on learning.

The particular issue I’d like to think about today is mental health. This is something many people are struggling with right now. Many of us were simply not prepared for the stress, anxiety, loneliness or boredom brought on by isolation.

I am not a mental health professional of any kind, but it is something I have a little personal experience of.

Today’s thought and the next few will be based on a talk on the subject that I gave at my church a few years ago.

What should a Christian’s attitude and response be towards mental illness?

What does the Bible say about mental illness? At first glance, perhaps not a great deal. The Bible writers lived at a time when nobody knew what mental illness was.

However in the New Testament there are examples of men and women suffering from “demons” or “unclean spirits” which appear to be what people at that time thought mental illnesses were. They didn’t have any sort of medical or psychological knowledge like we do today, but they were aware that something they could not see was causing people to behave in a strange or self-destructive way.

Did Jesus know what mental illness really was? He may have done, but if so he appears to have gone along with the understanding of the people around him, simply in order to get across the most important point: Jesus had power over these mysterious afflictions.

This leaves us with a problem. When faced with a difficulty many Christians ask “What would Jesus do?”. In the case of mental illness, it seems likely that he would have said “Come out, you unclean spirit”. Jesus could heal physical or mental ailments in an instant of time.

To the best of my knowledge that is not something Christians can do today. God can certainly send healing in response to prayer, but Christians cannot control if or how or when this will happen, as Jesus could.

Unfortunately, therefore, it appears there isn’t anything specific in the New Testament gospel accounts or letters about mental illness and how a Christian ought to address it or how to care for and understand people who suffer from it.

Nevertheless we do have general principles about the need to love one another, to care for one another, to bear one another’s burdens, to be understanding and accommodating of each other’s weaknesses and so on.

How can we as Christians do those things in the context of people we know either inside or outside of the church who may suffer from some form of mental illness?

My experience of church has been that it’s an area in which we have relatively very little understanding. Your own experience may vary. To me it seems that most of us have no idea how to identify the symptoms of mental illness either in ourselves or others. Nor do we have any idea how to manage mental illness in ourselves or provide support and care to others.

So what can we do?

As stated previously, I am not an expert on mental health and can only speak from personal experience of one specific form of mental illness, namely depression.

Our next post will begin by identifying some of the most common symptoms of depression and suggestions on how to respond to it in yourself or in others.

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