What Jesus teaches us about helping people with their mental health

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There is a text in the Bible I have grappled with for years and I think I might be on the way to understanding it.

Aware of the imminency of his death, Jesus retreats to the garden of Gethsemane. Just before his entrance, Jesus invites his disciples to support him in prayer. Confident of their support, Jesus enters the garden. What exactly took place in the Garden we will never know but Jesus' struggle with life and death is captured in the words: 'May this cup pass from me but not my will but yours.'

Why did Jesus utter these words?' What was behind them?

Jesus knew his enemies were circling and his days numbered. Having publicly declared himself as the Son of God, he had become a threat to the status quo, regarded a traitor by His enemies. Jesus' crucifixion, as far as the Romans were concerned, had become the only option open to him.

Having possibly witnessed a countless number of crucifixions during his early years, the pain and the agony would not have been lost on him. He would have been familiar with the agonising pain that punctured the Roman skies; the inhumanity of it all; the mocking crowds chanting for an extension of the crucifixion, lyrically urging the tortuous experience to continue into the pain of the night and even beyond.

It's no wonder Jesus said: 'May this cup pass from me.' He was fully aware that this was a most gruesome way to die.

I cannot think of one human being, alive or dead, that would not struggle with their mental health if faced with these conditions and this includes God in human form. His Gethsemane experience means that Jesus does more than listen to the groans of those who cry from the recesses of their soul for release from their mental health struggles. He goes a step beyond this and empathises. The intensity of Jesus' encounter in Gethsemane qualifies him to deeply connect with countless numbers of people struggling with their mental health.

Today, mental health has become a ubiquitous societal challenge. In the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic, anxiety and depression increased by 25%, according to the scientific brief released by the World Health Organisation (WHO). This should not surprise us. Months elapsed with people feeling incarcerated in their homes, many aching to see their loved ones, alive or dead, but the draconian nature of the Covid rules prohibited contact with family and friends.

Work, play, and collective worship - intrinsic expressions of being human - were, for a while, prohibited. Even the features that create and help sustain the future of our society were forbidden, with schools, colleges and universities included in the list of no-go areas.

A glimpse back into this period must surely make us wonder how the country emerged from this pandemic intact? The fact is, it did not. For millions, the nightmare continues and the legacy lives on undaunted by time. Young people, in particular, remain haunted by the ghost of the pandemic, determined to shake off its effects but finding to their disappointment that the pandemic has only heightened their internal battles.

For such people, examples of mental health challenges includes anxiety, bipolar disorder, depression, eating disorders and paranoia. The list goes on and on. For those unfortunate enough to experience mental health challenges, this is not a short-term experience, fixed by a few interventionist prayers and a counselling session or two. Our mental health is wedged to our existence, informing and shaping present and future pathways.

Mental illness can so easily disable mind and spirit and even evade the peace of God. To my disappointment and shame, I have only just come to realise the impact mental health has on the soul. This begs the question: what is the Church saying to the increasing numbers of people that are blighted by this titanic challenge and who feel that their only release from this living nightmare is to take their lives?

With social services unable to spend big money on mental health, the Church needs to assume a more active role. Judgement can't be what we do, or even merely providing answers to these highly complex and multifaceted disorders. Supporting in prayer is certainly one option and an important one at that - it was no coincidence that Jesus invited His disciples to support Him in prayer. But personally, I have yet to be persuaded that praying for healing with someone is a productive strategy for the person concerned. How will they feel if they are not healed? What impact would be made on a person's psyche should the prayer go unanswered?

On the other hand, if you pray with those struggling, weep with them in their pain, celebrate their journey towards healing, and gently invite God to usher inner peace into their colliding and chaotic worlds, this can be far more beneficial than a request for immediate healing – which can go unanswered.

Then there is a listening Church. Listening is not as simple as it sounds but for those struggling with their mental health, it is powerful. I wonder if Jesus' invitation to his disciples to pray for him while in the Garden had a sub text? It might have been: listen and pray for me. Who knows if this was a cry for his disciples to listen to his struggle with life and death?

Deep listening requires that the Church listens to its own pain and mess before it listens to the pain of others. When listening to those with mental health, the listener is required to embrace the total humanity of the wounded and continue to embrace it even beyond the physical listening process. This means that, even when the conversation comes to end, the listener continues to reflect on what they have heard, attempting to make sense of the pain of the person they have been listening to and bringing it to the God who is able to curate a redemptive story for the sufferer.

I have only just returned to the pastorate and I am learning that for a church's culture to be healthy, a prerequisite is its mental health. Movement towards emotional healing for those fighting with their mental health can be possible if the soul of the church, the culture of the church, oozes contextual and compassionate prayer, and reflects inclusion and the embrace of others through listening.

The inclusion of these ingredients is necessary for a healthy church. They also help facilitate the church's transition towards becoming a community of wounded healers. With one in four adults and one in 10 children experiencing mental illness, the Church needs to embody its pastoral soul by unconditionally embracing those in our communities in need of wounded healers.

So, what is my final reflection on Jesus saying, 'May this cup pass from me, but not my will but yours'? It is that Jesus the wounded healer, who emerges scathed from his experience in Gethsemane, calls the Church, his community of healers, to show love and empathy to those battling with their mental health.

Wale Hudson-Roberts is Justice Enabler at the Baptist Union of Great Britain and the pastor of John Bunyan Baptist Church in Cowley, Oxford.