catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 10, Num 11 :: 2011.06.10 — 2011.06.23


Out of her mind

In Africa, they blamed aberrant behaviors we call mental illness on demons. Of course, they blamed a lot of things on demons in Africa — things like epilepsy and infertility, and for that matter, even death. In this country, when I began working with college students nearly 30 years ago, I collided with many believers who were convinced that mental illnesses were little more than sin issues.  You just needed to help the person recognize the sin in his or her life and the need for repentance. Certainly, once they had dealt with their sin, it would all go away.

And something pretty close to that is what I believed for a long time — just get people talking and help them sort it out. Maybe it wasn’t their own sin, but their response to sin against them, and I did find that talking really did help many of my students, especially when I was able to help them understand and apply relevant Scripture.  But I wonder now if it was the talking as much as what happens when one person listens to another, gives attention and time to the other person.

Still, over time I was also confronted with real mental illnesses, the kind that can’t be cured informally, no matter how much talking you do or how much Scripture you try to help them apply.

She was an 18-year-old freshman who just wouldn’t stop talking. As a staff, we joked about it a bit, about how she just had too much to say. Then she bumped into me in the hall, and didn’t stop talking for 45 minutes. There was no polite edging into the conversation; this was a monologue, much like a driving wind or a rip tide overwhelming both of us. She could not stop talking, and I had no way to start. At one brief moment, she slowed down enough to apologize for the nonstop vocalizations, but she did not give me space to jump in. At that point, I knew this was more than a young woman with a lot to say. She couldn’t help herself, and she knew what was happening was not normal or healthy. I called her family, and they said they knew it was time to take her home, time to get the same kind of help her dad needed.

I remember going back to my office after her parents left with a sense of failure. No matter how much I, or any other mental health professional on my campus, talked to her, she needed more. Just as the diabetic needed insulin, this girl needed medication, and much more than affection.

Over the years, I have seen the continuum of students struggling with everything from being the only child of older parents and believing the world existed to meet her needs to the schizophrenic who thought he was a twentieth century prophet. Some needed hospitalization to protect themselves and others.  Some needed medication and regular monitoring by a professional, but also, they all needed to be loved, to be listened to, to be valued.

Every year, as I help orient our new staff, I remind them never to ignore a students based on their assessment that the students are just doing things (whatever those things might be) to get attention. Just think, I say, how broken they must be that the only way they know how to get attention is by standing endlessly in your doorway or telling great long fanciful stories about what they did in high school or refusing to eat when they finally allow themselves to be coaxed into going to meals.  Made in the image of God, though flawed by the ripple effects of sin (not necessarily their own), they need us to overcome our own fears of the unknown or the different and love them back to the Body.

So what do I believe now? I must say I am not convinced that there is no demon activity today, that some of what we call mental illness might possibly be the manifestation of demon oppression. I do also believe that there are some people who struggle with mental illness and broken brains, who need medication to bring things back into right functioning. Finally, I think there are many people who just need other people to love them, to listen to them and to help them figure out how they moved away from being conformed to the image of God and most importantly, to help them figure out how to get back on that path.

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