“I am also very conscious (and was especially so while praying for you during your workless time) that anxiety is not only a pain which we must ask God to assuage but also a weakness we must ask Him to pardon–for He’s told us take no care for the morrow.” – C.S. Lewis
C.S. Lewis’ counsel to the woman he was corresponding with is an especially regressive moment in his corpus. What are commonly called “mental health issues” have gone from hyper-moralized and under-diagnosed, to (probably) over-diagnosed and not-moralized-at-all. If there was a stigma against speaking openly about anxiety or depression, there is now a strong prohibition against even asking whether such phenomena might have moral components to them.
The inverted emphasis is perhaps most palpable when we look at the kinds of ‘treatments’ for depression and anxiety that are promoted. For instance, I once won a whole lot of friends on Twitter by proposing that going to church would be a cheaper way of improving welfare than universal access to high-quality therapy. My point was a mild, cheeky one: but critics suggested I was not taking mental health seriously.
Therapy can be immensely valuable, of course. There’s no reason to read that as a qualification, as though I’m really saying it isn’t valuable. It has a place, an important place within the range of treatment options for serious depression, anxiety, and the like. People inside and outside of the church should go to therapy, if one needs it and has means.
But the de-moralization of such phenomena seems to carry with it the corollary principle that church is of no help at all. Or worse: for some, the church is the kind of place that contributes to the problem, precisely by raising the question of whether there are moral dimensions to the mental health problems. In other words, the demoralization of ‘mental health’ leads to an inherent anti-morality principle: it cannot abide the possibility that we have done something wrong. (There’s a similar observation to be made about political liberalism here: what begins with a minimalistic public morality ends in tyranny.)
At the same time: if people cannot imagine that church might be good for mental health, that is perhaps as much a commentary on our churches’ form and witness as it is on them. This, too should be noted.
Still, if some churches are bad for people’s mental health, it seems to me that the therapeutic benefits of weekly gatherings to forget ourselves and worship God are seriously downplayed these days. The purgative value of confessing our sins and hearing God’s forgiveness is considerable—especially for those whose psyches are fragile. In even the most “happy clappy” church, one is given the opportunity to momentarily encounter the God of the Universe. (I have spent some of my most anxious days in such churches, and found them oddly refreshing.)
If nothing else, one leaves church with a clean conscience—and in the midst of anxiety and depression, one needs all the mental health boosts one can get. Knowing one can stand before God beneath the full forgiveness of our sins—including, even, the sins of anxiety—may not make one feel particularly happy or energetic. But it does offer a real source of real confidence: and like anxiety, confidence aggregates once it gets started.
Note that I said ‘sins of anxiety’ in that last paragraph, which tips my hand: with Lewis, I think there is a real place for naming our anxiety as an indication of our disordered lives before God. Anxiety is a nameless, faceless demon: it so often comes from somewhere, we know not where, and subverts our action by turning us in on itself. If it is not itself a grounds for pardon, it is a source of a million choices which stand in need of pardon: for the Lord has empowered ways to act, even in spite of and against ourselves.