Chloe Livingstone, a student at our South West Regional Centre, reflects theologically on the rise of mental health issues. Does our perception of these issues change or shift when we put God into the picture?
“Theology can be used to approach each and every situation we face.”
Tim Shapiro argues that Christians should give consideration to theology “in light of everyday life.”¹ God created the foundations of the world which we read in Job when He declares “where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations?” (Job 38:4 NIV). He created the world we inhabit, so every situation we face, every relationship we have, God is in them. In short, God can be found anywhere, so are we looking for Him?
One issue that has become prominent in recent years is the increase of mental health issues, particularly amongst young people. In the year 2000, The World Health Organisation shared that 20% of adolescents suffer from a disabling mental illness.² In a more recent NHS study, it was found that one in eight (12.8%) of 5 to 19 year olds had at least one mental disorder when assessed.3
Mental health problems are clearly on the rise and not going away any time soon, so are we paying attention?
Helen Berry believes that the church has a responsibility to come alongside those struggling with their mental health. She claims that Christians potentially have the ability to provide comfort to “heal young people, in body, mind and spirit.”4
The big question is how do we use theology to approach this issue and how do we care for those who are struggling? We need to be rooted in God’s word, it will not be as simple as telling someone to “pray harder” or “have more faith”, as is sadly so often the case. We also need to be aware that our counsel does not replace medical intervention, it must work in harmony with other therapies in order to help those suffering.5
“When I used theology to approach my circumstances it completely changed my perspective.”
As a young Christian, I myself experienced debilitating mental health problems and traumatic experiences. I was diagnosed with depression and experienced traumatic family relationship. And whilst I did rely upon doctors to ease my physical symptoms, it was my faith that really got me through each day.
When I used theology to approach my circumstances it completely changed my perspective. I saw God’s abundant love for me even when I was feeling down. 1 John tells us that “this is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” (1 John 4:10 NIV). God loved me unconditionally, despite my sadness. I did not have to be put together to earn his favour, it was available to me regardless of my mental state.
1 John tells us that “this is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” (1 John 4:10 NIV).
The first thing that young people need to know when they are suffering with their mental health is that they are loved. They do not need to reach a certain level of stability to achieve it, they are absolutely and unconditionally loved by God. He does not judge or question their worth, he accepts and loves them in spite of everything.6
Another theological reflection that helped in my own walk was that God does sometimes allow suffering. This may sound controversial but a great example is the story of Joseph. He was abused by his brothers and then falsely accused and imprisoned in Egypt. And yet, this time of despair led to great blessing for Joseph. In Genesis 50, he proclaims “you intended to harm me, but God intended it for good.” (Gen 50:20 NIV). John Calvin understood that Joseph was aware that God allowed the suffering he endured, and yet his trust in the Lord never wavered.7 He recognised that God brought beauty out of a seemingly desperate situation.
“This theological insight was incredibly encouraging to me as I knew that my struggle was not insignificant, there was a purpose, even if I could not see it at the time.”
This theological insight was incredibly encouraging to me as I knew that my struggle was not insignificant, there was a purpose, even if I could not see it at the time. Young people who are struggling with mental health need to hear that their suffering is not meaningless. They need to be aware that God does sometimes allow the struggle in order to help us grow. John Piper says that “God’s ways are not our ways. He has purposes for our weaknesses,”8 that we may not always understand. The fundamental thing is that we encourage them to trust in God despite the pain. Whether that means sharing our own experiences to provide hope, or simply sitting and allowing the tears to flow. We must always affirm that God is trustworthy and good, even though we may sometimes feel the opposite.
The beauty of theological thinking is that it can be applied to every area of life, the seemingly banal but also the prominent issues of this generation. Mental health is something we should be talking about more as Christians. And we should have a good theological perspective so that people, particularly young people who are suffering know that they are loved and supported by us.
Chloe is a BA placement-based student at our South West Regional Centre.
Click here for more information about our centre, the placement-based BA in Applied Theology programme, and how you can be a part of it.
Tim Shapiro, “Homegrown Theology: understanding God in everyday life,” Congregations 30, no.1 (Winter 2004): 28.
WHO, “Caring for children and adolescents with mental disorders: Setting WHO directions,” World Health Organisation, 2003, 4. http://www.who.int/mental_health/media/en/785.pdf
Mental Health of Children and Young People in England, 2017
Helen Berry, “WHAT THE FUTURE HOLDS: Current Issues for the Next Generation,” The Way 5 7, no.2 (Fall 2018), 30.
Mike Winger provides a reasoned look at sadness and depression, without claiming to “fix” the problems.
Chris Williams, Paul Richards and ingrid Whitton, I’m Not Supposed to Feel Like This ( London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2002), 21.
John Calvin, Genesis, Geneva Series Commentary (London: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1965), 488.