The inquest into the death of Wales Football manager, Gary Speed, ended with a narrative verdict which told us that Mr Speed died by his own hand, but that this may not have been his intention. Therefore we do not know whether or not Gary Speed was part of the 1 in 6 proportion of the population who currently suffer from some form of depressive illness. While there is still some stigma attached to depressive illness, more and more people in the public eye revealing that this is a burden that they have borne has probably made it easier for ordinary people be recognised as sufferers.
The diagnosis of mental illness is not new, but ‘treatment’ often consisted of removing a patient to a place of safety for them and society. Surgery and Electric Shock Therapy remain controversial treatments into the 21st century, although execution for cowardice has been replaced by treatment for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in cases of ‘shell shock’.
The relationship between mental health and the religious world is reflected in the changing times. Although there is the added dimension of whether or not the symptoms of what the Bible describes as demon possession are the manifestation of mental illness. However, a number of Bible characters and religious figures in the church have also shown signs of suffering from depressive illness. Both Elijah and Jonah in the Old Testament seem to have been unable to cope with circumstances in the lives. In the 16th century, Martin Luther seems to have recognised depression in a colleague who took his own life. He referred to his deceased colleagues state of mind: “This is the tragedy of our human condition, that we fall so far we can no longer see or hear the true God, and we imagine the condemning God is the only God. And then, the God we imagine becomes the God we get.”
Of all people, it is Jesus to whom we might look for an example of God’s presence at the time of greatest despair. It was Jesus who knew the sense of desolation that can come with depressive illness as he cried from the cross about God having forsaken him. The message is that God follows us to the very deepest point that we can reach.
However, this is not a claim that trusting in God will make it all OK. Mental illness requires just as much expert medical care as an illness that affects the body. A part of that care is a person’s need to know that they are not travelling alone. This is the sort of care that we can all offer. We may not know just how the other person feels, but most of us have experienced time in the wilderness and have experienced despair. We don’t need to know the pain of mental illness to walk along side someone who does. We simply have to follow our calling and take up our cross and follow Jesus to the Dark Place. In so-doing we share the darkness, while holding on to the light.