I recently saw some tweets about reading the Bible preventing suicide or self harm. A Christian paper had published a follow-up article to one they had written a while ago on self harm; it was also in the light of campaigns about how some social media accounts are known to promote self harm and suicide – the death of 14 year old Molly Russell being a key catalyst for the most recent campaign.
I didn't want to respond with a knee-jerk reaction to other people's interpretation of the article, so I read it for myself. The paper concerned is one I respect, so I wanted to be absolutely sure about what was being said.
It turned out to be a typical comment-on-life column, and too short to paint a full picture of the subject. My summing up of the column into even fewer words is: 'Take control and focus on good stuff rather than focusing on nothing.'
I agree with those tweeting: taking the column as a whole, it could look as though the writer is saying that by diverting your focus on to good stuff, like reading the Bible, our young people would be less likely to take their own lives.
I don't think it was what was meant and I doubt it was the intention of the writer to boil down mental health problems into such a simplified view – you can't do this subject justice in fewer than 500 words. By trying to do so, we end up feeding the wrong belief of many that 'real Christians' don't have mental health problems, don't self harm and certainly don't take their own lives.
My other concern here is something I grew up with, and is often the butt of many a joke in the Christian world: the answer is always Jesus, even if the description sounds like a squirrel.
I grew up with people saying, 'If only people followed Jesus, this [add problem here] would be sorted.' You may have heard many versions of this cry. Even in my experiences as a child, I could see that it didn't work. At its root, and spiritually speaking, it's true that Jesus is the answer. But answering his call to follow him does not bring an end to our problems. Many, due to circumstances quite outside Facebook, still struggle with 'stuff' regardless of their faith and level of Bible study.
Regarding the comment about focusing on good things like the Bible – it's true that it can be a great comfort. It can point us in the right direction in many of the issues we face in our lives and show us how God views us. The Bible is a vital component in our faith, and in the face of day-to-day stress or low self-esteem, I agree, it can be an enormous help.
But I know lots of people who have mental health problems. Many are Christians who read their Bible, and follow Jesus in spite of their struggle. Two of my friends, active Christians who read their Bible, took their own lives a few years ago.
Focusing on Scripture can be a comfort, but we need to recognise that in the face of any chronic illness, reading can be very difficult. Spiritually speaking Jesus is the answer, but we need to acknowledge that we still get problems.
It's good to remember that if we quote 'Jesus is the answer', we ourselves are Jesus' hands and feet on earth.
It's also good to remember that for young people with additional needs there is a huge lack of accessible Bible resources. The suicide rate of these people in particular is very high. What do they do if focusing on the Bible is the answer?