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Mental Health Sunday: Toward a New Understanding

Mental Health Sunday: Toward a New Understanding

In the United Church of Christ, this Sunday is Mental Health Sunday. Many congregations won’t choose to observe it at all, while a few will have Mental Health Sunday at a different point in the year. However, it isn’t something that should be overlooked or avoided. Church can be helpful or harmful, and our history indicates that we have harmed more than we’ve helped when it comes to mental health. Too many people, even in progressive congregations, still believe that mental illness is a punishment for sin, a character flaw, or evidence of insufficient faith. Isn’t it time we tell it like it is? Isn’t it time we end the silence and shatter the stigma surrounding mental illness in our churches?

Jesus said, “All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one” (John 17:11-12). He was speaking about his disciples then and now. He didn’t make any distinction among them. And, I’d bet that some of them had diagnosable mental health conditions. Think about Peter and is impulsiveness…

Anyway, Jesus claimed all who followed him as his people, given to him by God. In this prayer during the Farewell Discourses in John’s gospel, Jesus asks God to protect them and create wholeness among them – make them one. I wish this had happened then or was happening now. It isn’t a failure on God’s part to answer Jesus’ prayer. It is a failure on the part of the church to live as we have been called. We make judgments and live in fear, separated one from another when we don’t have to.

In biblical times demon possession and punishment for sin were the only way to understand mental illness. However, we know better now, or we should. Mental illness takes place in the brain. The brains of people with mental illness function differently and some differences are observable in brain imaging. We generally don’t say that cancer or heart disease are a punishment from God, though many might feel this way. We also don’t tend to blame people who are diagnosed with physical illness for their condition. Yet, we do when it comes to mental illness. Why is that?

The simple answer is that we are afraid. We are afraid that it could happen to us. Or we believe the misinformation that is out there that people who have severe and persistent mental illness are violent. Or we fearful of saying or doing the wrong thing. As a result of our fear and, maybe, some ignorance, too, we remain silent and separated from our siblings who live with symptoms of mental illness. This is where stigma comes from. This is in direct opposition to how Jesus told us we are supposed to live – as one, one whole Body of Christ.

I can’t help but wonder if more people would find welcome in our congregations if we stopped being fearful and started to foster a sense of unity with all of our neighbors. If we endeavored to learn more about mental health conditions and stopped ignored that 1 in 5 U.S. adults is diagnosed with a mental health condition, how might this change church? Wouldn’t Body of Christ be healthier if we were to fully embrace all of our members, friends, and neighbors who live with mental illness?

Recently, I’ve learned about the term “bodymind” and I think Jesus would be a fan. Bodymind eliminates the dualism that Western traditions have created. Bodymind is all about the mind and body as a single unit and eliminates the distinction between physical health and mental health. Imagine the Body of Christ becoming the Bodymind of Christ… We would not longer have the option of pretending that mental illness isn’t part of the church. The silence would be broken and the stigma completely shattered, not to mention the sense of wholeness that this understanding could foster…

Isn’t it time that we work together to embrace the unity that Jesus prayed for among his followers? That they be one… The Bodymind of Christ…

RCL – Year B – Seventh Sunday of Easter – May 16, 2021 Acts 1:15-17, 21-26  • Psalm 1  • 1 John 5:9-13  • John 17:6-19

Originally from Write Out of Left Field by Rachael A. Keefe on May 13th, 2021 

Rachael A. Keefe is the pastor of Living Table United Church of Christ (UCC) in the Twin Cities. Since being ordained by the UCC in 1992, Rachael has served in many different ministry settings both traditional and decidedly nontraditional, in Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Minnesota. She has a Master of Divinity degree from Princeton Theological School, another Masters degree (ThM) from Princeton, in Christian Education and Counseling, and a doctoral degree (DMin) from Andover Newton Seminary at Yale Divinity School. Rachael is a pastor, an author, a painter, and a poet. 
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