Is God good for my mental health?
Rachel Collis is an Australian singer/songwriter influenced by the sounds of folk, rock and cabaret. Earlier this year she performed at Yurora and led a discussion with youth about spirituality and mental health. Rachel shared with Insights whether she really thinks God is good for your mental health.
In short, yes. I truly believe that the companionship of an all-loving, divine presence can be the greatest comfort to the lonely and despairing. That message of unconditional love is a powerful antidote to voices that undermine our sense of self and worth. But Christianity? I don’t know. But I do know this – much of the language and theology I grew up with was detrimental to me personally.
It was precisely this language and these theologies I sought to address when I stepped into a room full of young people at the Yurora conference this past January. I’d been booked in my capacity as singer/songwriter to perform at the conference, and I soon found myself volunteering to run a session called “Is God good for my mental health?” I wanted to share my story – the story of a young girl looking to her faith tradition to remedy her inner struggles.
Yes, I am a person who suffers from mental illness. And no, you’d never pick it. I have a wonderful marriage, I have great friends, and I am reasonably successful in my career.
In that session that day, I shared far more about myself than I dare to share in print form.
I shared how, in my ignorance of what was really happening in my inner world, I came to understand my thoughts and actions as “sin”. I did this because adults had defined it so – sin was obsession, sin was negative thoughts, sin was anything you felt ashamed of (for wasn’t that God’s conscience telling you it was wrong?), sin was anything you wouldn’t be prepared for others to know.
A doctrine of unworthiness, of hopelessness to save myself, of “should”s and “try harder”s fed the feelings of worthlessness and helplessness that fueled my growing mental health problems.
And an intercessory God who controls all things who became distant, mean-spirited, even manipulative, for why wasn’t he answering my prayers? “God moves in mysterious ways” didn’t cut it. And “God never gives us more than we handle” proved a lie.
In a dualistic model where humans fall categorically into “Christians” and “non-Christians” and where “saved” and “unsaved” has everything to do with what we believe, and nothing to do with how we are towards ourselves and others, I was the perfect Christian poster-child. Abuse, mental health problems, mental illness were problems that existed “out there”. “In here” my struggles were completely invisible. They went unnoticed, un-helped.
In the discussion that ensued we wrestled with how to teach compassion, restraint and social responsibility without a doctrine of sin and shame. We tackled the question of an intercessory God, and how faith and meaning might exist without one. We talked about how traditionally-understood “salvation” is not synonymous with mental health.
To my great delight, my audience was not only ignorant of many of the theologies that had been so destructive to me, they also responded with the horror I feel they deserve. And my hard-won revelations were obvious to them. They were second-nature.
Perhaps it is that we have come in leaps and bounds as a culture in terms of understanding the reality of mental illness, even in the short time since I was a teenager going to church. Perhaps it is that my young audience that day, mostly attending Uniting Churches, has grown up exposed to the open, progressive theologies that I only discovered in my early twenties.
But walking away from that short session that day, I knew I’d caught a glimpse of the kind of faith where the human and the divine converse in harmony.