All that God manifested through creation, in His unfathomable wisdom, is beautiful in some true way; whether it be the rings of Saturn or the rings of a tree, the eyes of a housefly or the eye of a hurricane. It’s not always simple to understand, nor to appreciate, but our minds can comprehend its intrinsic beauty on some level. Why? Because we have incomparably rational minds. When the spirit of God was upon the waters, and he said, “Let there be light”, we can trust that He knew the ultimate fulfillment of that illumination would be in the unique and precious faculty of man known as the mind. However, while the mind is the seat of our most awesome power, for many it can also be the source true suffering.
This suffering comes in many forms, but depression, anxiety, compulsive behavior, and substance abuse are common and caused by countless factors. It has recently been estimated that 1 in 5 Americans suffers from some form of mental illness. I’ve encountered many of these conditions both personally and vocationally, and I am sure that you have had some experience yourself either as the one suffering or the one attempting to help someone who is.
We don’t publicly say it enough in our community or the Armenian Church, but the truth is you do not need to feel shame because of how you feel, and you deserve to experience joy and peace in your life. There are no easy answers in the quest for mental wellness, but our faith is our greatest ally in this cause when it supports and encourages us to do what can be most hard: seek help.
Mental illness is not a sin
Often Christians assume, of themselves and others, that depression or anxiety are caused by lack of faith in God’s providence or ungratefulness for God’s blessings. More tragically, some assume that these disorders are punishment for sinfulness. This attitude not only prevents them from seeking proper treatment, but it perpetuates the sense that they’re suffering is warranted and inescapable. Finally, it’s an opinion, which isn’t based on a traditional orthodox biblical understanding of the Christian faith.
Indeed, the despair which comes from a lack of hope or trust in Christ is a spiritual issue, which can lead to spiritual suffering and affect our salvation. However, this is distinct from a state of clinical depression. It has been proven that often mental disorders are rooted in the physical condition. In other words, depression or anxiety can be no more sinful than pancreatitis or male pattern baldness. The moral component comes in to play when despair wins out, and treatment options aren’t considered, or when support from family, friends, and community are refused. The path to avoid sin is to respect St. Paul’s teaching when he says, “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.” (Corinthians 6:19) As Armenian Apostolic Christian, we must count amongst our virtues the will to achieve physical and mental wellbeing because we are representatives of Christ himself and vessels of the Holy Spirit.
Is it okay to seek help?
The human experience is a reality, which is always both physical and spiritual, but when an issue can be resolved physically, the gift of the rational mind can be employed to find a solution. The solution to any health issue is almost never singular. Heath must be pursued at many levels. As Christians, one of these levels must include the power of prayer, and the fruits of a healthy sacramental relationship with Jesus Christ through the Church. However, certainly amongst them are medicine and therapy. Christ, in His parable of the Good Samaritan, emphasizes that the Samaritan's actions were virtuous because of his medical care for the stranded man, saying “He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him” (Luke 10:34).
Therefore, in addition to individual and collective prayer, psychological therapy and psychiatric treatment must be explored to resolve mental health issues, just as someone with a broken arm would not use prayer alone to mend it if there was a doctor nearby. Good diet and physical exercise are also very important for mental health, just as they are in all aspects of life.
It can sometimes be challenging to find a therapist or counselor that agrees with the values that you hold as an Armenian and as a Christian, however, as the patient, it is your right to be selective, and this is an essential part of the process. Psychiatric drugs are difficult to accept for some, and not effective in all cases when they are prescribed, but for some, they are an indispensable part of the process.
What can the Church do?
If you feel like you need spiritual support on the road to wellness, you should speak with your pastor, and open up to him about your condition in confidence. Most clergy are not trained mental health professionals, and they can’t replace the role of a certified counselor, however, as a priest of the Armenian Church, he is called to support you as a partner in prayer, a spiritual director, or even a father confessor. He will be an invaluable component to help you along the way.
Your parish family too can support you in incredible ways. If you feel comfortable opening up to your fellow parishioners, they will pray for you, share their struggles with you, provide resources if possible, and most importantly stand by you. The Epistle to the Hebrews encourages the faithful to do this, “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another” (Hebrews 10:24–25). If you aren’t sure who you should share with consult your pastor, who can point you in the right direction.
How can you help others?
If you are a friend, sibling, parent, child, or spouse of someone who is struggling with mental illness, it can be a true challenge, but you don’t have to go through it alone. A core component of a Christian life is compassion, which teaches us that there is virtue in feeling the pain of others and desiring to alleviate it. However, in the cases of depression, anxiety, compulsive behavior, and especially substance abuse the one suffering will often willfully avoid treatment. It is crucial that you educate yourself about the condition of your loved one so that you can understand the underlying causes of their behavior, which are typically not based on logic. However, you also mustn’t simply accept the unchanging reality of their disorder. The Christian is called to the monumental task of avoiding judgmental expressions while remaining open to dialogue and compassionately encouraging and enabling treatment. This can be utterly exhausting on a physical, emotional, and spiritual level. Therefore, its crucial to find active support in the form of discussion groups, bible study, relevant and trustworthy online forums, pastoral counseling, and even a caring friend. Faith in this circumstance is of immeasurable value because hope will be the force that drives you. The Lord says through the prophet Isaiah, “but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint”. Lastly, it is an important and painful truth that you cannot force someone to get better. Reassurance cannot lessen the difficulty of that fact, but you don’t have to accept it alone because your pastor, parish, and community will support you if you reach out to them.
The path that leads us closer to Christ is a journey that takes us from brokenness to redemption. There is no shame in employing all means available to us, as each of us goes about the holy work of becoming healthier in mind, body, and spirit. May God give you strength in the coming year to achieve your goals, face your fears, and find fulfillment in all your endeavors.
With love and prayers,
Fr. Mesrop Ash