The anguish of mental illness

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By Ephraim Radner

Scripture knows about mental illness and its anguish. The great David, God’s anointed, agonized under the emotional dissolution of his mentor Saul—anger, paranoia, melancholy, self-hatred. David’s life was disrupted and even endangered as a result over many years. But most importantly, David lost in Saul’s illness one of his most beloved protectors and a home in which he had come to find friendship and encouragement. And Saul found himself abandoned at the end of a life he brought to a close with his own hand.

The picture is not uncommon for many of us. We don’t know why Saul’s inner life disintegrated—the Bible speaks of an “evil spirit” from God, but says no more—and David’s perplexity at his older friend’s behaviour is poignant. So it is for many of us who encounter mental illness within our families or among friends, or sometimes even looking in the mirror at ourselves. Where does this illness come from?  How could it come to dismantle a cherished personality?

Mental illness can be professionally treated today, often very effectively—through therapy, medication, and varied avenues of communal support. When these means are given time and space, sometimes we can even speak of “cures.” All persons, Christians included, should avail themselves of such healing means, without shame and without stint. These constitute God’s grace as much as anything.

But even here, the toll is often great; and the cure may be only partial. In the face of such struggle, David models for us several important things.

First, David retains his love and respect for Saul to the end. While he is able, David seeks to soothe Saul’s spirit by playing his harp. Even when this is no longer possible, he always remembers the older man’s status as God’s “anointed” and as his own friend. For us, this means simply that we cannot cease caring in the light of the depth of God’s claim on an ill person’s life. More than anything, we must hold on to the truth that they belong to God, and hence call forth from within a commitment of love as deep as the Lord will offer us. Second, David understands his own need to survive, to protect his personal well-being if he is to fulfill God’s purpose for his life. He understood what the limits of his help could be. Understanding such limits is often difficult but essential. Finally, David trusts in the provision of God, in whose mysterious purposes Saul’s affliction finds its meaning. I recall an older mother, speaking of her daughter, who told me that at last she had to allow God to care for this child she could not heal herself. The woman was counselling me on my own struggles with someone I loved. It is not a sentimental counsel to provide: you are not their saviour. Rather, pray and let God be.

Saul is an extreme case. In my own life, I have seen healing of mental illness. But I have also seen its seeming victory over health. Most often, I have lived in the midst of the murky field of extended struggle. I can say that, in this, I have learned to love more deeply, to hope more fully, and to trust in God in ways I did not realize were possible. After all—here, an Advent message!—the “stem of Jesse,” David’s branch, is his Lord and mine, and in His shade, there is rest (cf. Is. 4;2; 11:1).