David Finnegan-Hosey’s new book, Christ on the Psych Ward, breathes life into a space often confined to isolation and despair: mental health. According to the National Alliance on Mental Health, 43.8 million Americans “experience mental illness in a given year.” Tragically, conversations around mental health are few and far between, which is often due to religious jargon infused with images of a faith that, when done correctly, leads to healing.
With enough faith, in other words, healing necessarily follows.
The implied assertion is that “people with mental illness”––a phrase David prefers over “the mentally ill” because people are, after all, people first––are ill due to their lack of faith and are fundamentally broken. It should come as no surprise, then, that Christians often exacerbate mental health problems through their rhetoric.
David has a powerful message that must be heard, and then heard again, and again. He is not arguing for churches to better accommodate people with mental illnesses, as if that population is a burden the church must bear because of Christ. Rather, David invites the church to listen and learn from people with mental illness so that the church’s understanding of God and faith grows.
People with mental illnesses are, therefore, valuable members of the community that are called by God to bring peace and love to the world. Any other perspective is wrought with sin. May the church listen and enact these prophetic words.
David states his purpose in writing by saying, “I pray that by sharing these thoughts, I open up some space for others to share their own stories.” So, to truly express the value of this book, I’ll respond to David’s call and share a bit of my story here.
Briefly, though, my story is not David’s, and by using his story to tell my own, I do not mean to absorb his into mine. Rather, I’m trying to embody David’s call to vulnerability. All our stories are different––not on a pendulum of “better” or “worse,” but rather, simply different.
While reading this book, I moved fluidly in time. David’s story resurfaced my own, transporting me to similar moments in my own life. This struck me by surprise the first time it happened, when these words by David sent me back:
“In June of 2011 I had the worst week of my life. By most outside indicators, I shouldn’t have been miserable.”
At the beginning of 2015, I noticed something different about myself. On numerous occasions I responded to the question, “How’s it going?” with, “I’m not sure; something seems a little bit off.” I was satisfied to leave whatever I was feeling at “a little bit off” because like David, everything in life was good. Heather, my wife, was pregnant with our third child, I had been accepted into three Ph.D. programs, and while we were extremely sad to leave our church in Somerville, we were confident that the amazing people in the church would continue the mission without us.
Everything should be fine.
But it wasn’t. I’ll talk about this in more detail in future posts, but in short, my idea of life was falling apart faster than I could philosophize and theologize it back together. Every aspect of who I was from my physical body to my conception of reality was deteriorating.
I remember receiving a phone call from someone close to me during that time. Sure, I was in disarray but oddly I hadn’t thought much about it. That is, until the person on the other end of the phone said:
“Since everything is going so well, you should be feeling better now.”
Collapse. Devestation. Dismemberment. Destruction.
I should be fine, but I most certainly wasn’t.
A faint inner voice appeared next: “If nothing is causing you to feel this way, since life is going so well, then something is horribly wrong with you.” Typing these words returns me once agin to that moment. The same tears fill my eyes re-experiencing the pain and loneliness.
Joel, you should be fine.
The old adage is that tears cleanse the soul. Well, for me during that time, tears were a constant reminder that while I should be fine, I wasn’t. They represented the uncontrollability of the situation. I couldn’t stop crying; I couldn’t stop these feelings; I couldn’t stop going crazy.
The word that lasted while everything else seems to evaporate. This must be what it’s like to go crazy. You know, “craziness” that we’ve all seen in movies. The person never knows it’s happening. They never seem to have any other option.
The demonization of an idea, of a group of people. A group that I was now joining.
David describes a chaplain friend who accompanied with him throughout his time at the psych ward. He calls him “a chaplain who understands mental illness as illness to be treated and not as weakness of faith simply to be prayed away.”
I was fortunate to have my own “chaplain friend” in the form of a married couple who provide pastors with counseling. The first thing they told me was that I wasn’t crazy (again, a negative idea I had constructed) and that I would be okay in time. In no way did I believe them; yet, I chose to withhold judgment for the time being.
It’s interesting because people will often ask me if I’m “better” now. In other words, I was “bad” then, so am I “good” now?
I always respond with a flat, “No.” For starters, how could I be separated from my own story? I’m forever different as a result of depression, just like I’m forever different because of family or friendships. I am depressed because it continues to shape the way I understand the world, people, myself, and faith. The version is always changing but for me, making depression a hurdle or obstacle to conquer only produced severe pain. Conversely, embracing newness and change allowed me to learn to move with God into the uncertain waters of life, trusting that while I am not fully in control, I am secure.
David’s book, Christ on the Psych Ward, is a life raft in the midst of turbulent waters. It doesn’t still the waters, but it does provide a space to move with the waves and winds. I highly recommend this book to people with mental illness, to those who have friends and family who do, and to the church as a whole. David has an important message that we all need to hear.
Note from the Editorial Team: Engaged Pentecostalism is a community that values open dialogue and respectful engagement from different perspectives. The views expressed above are the author's own and do not reflect those of every part of the community.