Sight Magazine – Books: When Christians Face Mental Health Problems

John swinton
Finding Jesus in the Storm: The Spiritual Lives of Christians with Mental Health Problems
SCM, London, 2020.
ISBN-13: 978-0334059745.

“The main strength of the book is to listen to and understand the lived experience of people of the Christian faith who live with the mental health issues of bipolar disorder, depression and schizophrenia”

A question we often ask is “Where is God?” This is a common question we ask in the midst of frustrating or painful circumstances – which usually implies that we don’t know if and how God is present. It’s also a good theological question to ask oddly in any context – hopefully involving that we believe God is there but want to discern what God is doing.

The question of the presence and activity of God is particularly difficult in relation to mental illness. Mental health issues have their own sufferings, but the stigma and misrepresentation increase the pain and anguish. In addition, believers may have further disappointments as they wonder where God and the church fit into their struggle.

We were drawn to Find Jesus in the Storm to learn more about how spirituality interacts with the mental health issues of Christians John Swinton interviewed and worked with.

Swinton is professor of practical and pastoral theology and founding director of the Center for Spirituality, Health and Disability at the University of Aberdeen. He draws on his background as a mental health and learning disability nurse, community mental health chaplain and minister, but is also one of the UK’s most respected pastoral theologians, especially in health mental health and care for the elderly.

The main strength of the book is to listen to and understand the lived experience of people of the Christian faith living with the mental health issues of bipolar disorder, depression and schizophrenia. The descriptions are not focused on healing, although they do sometimes deal with healing pathways or how people seek to live well with unconventional mental health experiences. The book goes beyond the usual thin descriptions or presumptuous representations to thicker narratives that are made possible by the qualitative research interview process that spanned two years. It offers empathetic insight into deep and complex pain, including showing how suicidal thoughts are understandable given the overwhelming exhaustion and abandonment that too often accompanies mental illness.

The sincere expression throughout the book does not lead to x number of response steps, but invites compassionate caregivers to listen and care with empathy: “This tension between inner pain and numbness towards life exterior makes it difficult to grasp a potential goodness in life. People can talk as much as they want about someone who is loved and valued, but if you can’t feel it or your inner pain makes it impossible to even consider such a thing as possible, words make little difference.

Swinton explains some of the ambiguities and complexities of diagnosis and treatment. We appreciated Swinton’s critique of how the diagnosis of mental health can become politically charged; with dehumanizing checklists, the dangers of reductive explanations and the lack of rigor in classification with the WHO International Classification of Diseases (ICD) and the APA Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). It explores the biological processes associated with social, cultural, interpersonal and spiritual sides.

Attention to spirituality in mental health is helpful when psychosis and schizophrenia often include hearing voices and other spiritually meaningful experiences. Inexplicable psychological distress has too often been explained by attributing it to sin or demonic influence, which is lazy analysis according to Swinton. Depression can foster a sense of Godlessness, but Swinton advises viewing this as an invitation to lament and authenticity. For example, Anna explained how depression changed her view of God: “It affected my theology in that I think I find it a little harder not to trust… I don’t know. not if I would say I find it more difficult. trust God, but I find it hard to have some trust. There’s no more, like, every time people have theological platitudes that basically like, God will just do OK if we trust Him, I definitely don’t have that kind of theology anymore. “

Swinton advises that faith can be expressed by trusting God as being in medicine and views taking medicine as a deeply spiritual act; a way to reconnect with God, oneself and others. Medicines can work not only to relieve symptoms, but also affect a soul’s positive outlook. Yet wholeness does not come only from medicine, but from relationships in the community, including church support. Mental health issues stretch faith and it becomes all the more important to “have faith in one another”. Seemingly intangible factors such as love, belonging, and meaningful work are antidepressant influences.

Find Jesus in the Storm is highly recommended reading for those who experience or support mental health issues. It is also to offer a fruitful model of research centered on understanding by listening to the lived experience.

This review was originally published in the Australian Army Chaplaincy Journal (2021), 107-108.

Jessie Cronshaw is a nurse with a special interest in mental health and women’s health. Darren Cronshaw is an Australian Army Chaplain (part-time) who served at the Army Transportation School and in 2021 he is serving with 1st Recruit Training Battalion, Kapooka. His civilian work is pastor of Auburn Baptist Church and teaches leadership and research methods with Australian College of Ministries (SCD).

About Marcia G. Hussain

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