By Brian Nixon, Special to ASSIST News Service
ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO (ANS – October 25, 2016) — In an article published by Relevant Magazine entitled, “4 Misconceptions about Mental Illness and Faith,” writer Andrea Jongbloed gives four quick characterizations some people have concerning mental illness: 1. People with mental heath conditions are unsafe, 2. People with mental illness are unpredictable and difficult to relate to, 3. Most people with mental illness are on welfare of homeless, 4. People with mental illnesses would rather not talk about it .
Jongbloed’s article tackles a difficult subject, bringing out many important realities associated with mental illness, particularly as it relates to fear. I recommend the read, especially for those within the church. Christians need to ask how we are to minister and convey God’s truth and love to individuals with mental illness — in all its forms (from schizophrenia to mild depression). Mental illness (like any illness) is a deep and daunting reality we must face head on — with charity, compassion, and, hopefully, a clear idea of the science behind the disease.
Generally, I agree with Jongbloed’s points; there are too many misconceptions regarding the mentally ill. However, one question came to my mind during a recent lecture I attended that Jongbloed didn’t address in her article (though alluded to). The question concerns people trying to help individuals with mental illness: what happens when a person attempting to help crosses the threshold of compassion and falls prey to depression themselves, turning from helping the person to hurting the person or themselves?
Noted photographer, Donald Woodman — husband of internationally celebrated feminist artist, Judy Chicago — presented the lecture I’m referring to above. Mr. Woodman gave the presentation in support of his newest book, Agnes Martin and Me . Of course, the “Agnes” in the name is in reference to acclaimed visual artist, Agnes Martin.
For those who do not know Agnes Martin’s work and renown, a short word by her representative, Pace Gallery, highlights her importance to the artistic world: “Agnes Martin (b. 1912, Macklin, Saskatchewan, Canada; d. 2004, Taos, New Mexico) imparted a legacy of abstraction that has inspired generations of artists. Using a limited palette and a geometric vocabulary, her works are inscribed with lines or grids that hover over subtle grounds of color. Martin’s work is recognized as pure abstraction, in which space, metaphysics and internal emotional states are explored through painting, drawing and printmaking.
“Martin is the recipient of numerous awards including the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale in 1997 and the National Medal of Arts in 1998. She has been the subject of one-artist exhibitions worldwide, including a five-part retrospective at Dia: Beacon, New York, in 2007, and, most recently, a 2015 retrospective at Tate Modern, London, which will travel to Kunstsammlung NRW, Düsseldorf; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York ”
What is not discussed in this short biography by Pace Gallery is the fact that Martin was schizophrenic, hearing voices and acting in — at times — unbearable ways. She had a mental illness. And the way various articles, institutions, and people have dealt with Martin’s illness ranges from “the voices told her what to paint” (which doesn’t give the credit to Martin for her creativity), to a crazed-genius, to an unwillingness to discuss her illness at all .
But Woodman knows better. Over a seven-year period he was associated with Martin and her illness, Martin’s uneven behavior and demands on Woodman led him to the point of an attempted suicide, seeking therapy to make sense of it all. The help he gave turned to hurt. True, the signs of Martin’s illness were everywhere at the beginning of their working relationship — from Martin’s “voices” and self-imposed, inconsolable seclusion, to her erratic behavior. But Woodman thought maybe her behavior was part of her personality, the mystic-artist celebrated in the art world.
During the lecture, Woodman said Martin’s unpredictable behavior became very pronounced towards the end of their working relationship: “One minute she’d say one thing like, ‘I love you,’ and the next moment she’s saying, ‘I hate you, go away.’” It was the erratic conduct and words that caused great consternation and confusion for Woodman. Woodman didn’t know she was mentally ill (he had hunches), but his suspicions were confirmed after picking Martin up from a mental institution in Colorado. Martin left Woodman’s property one day and wasn’t heard from for over a week. After a call from the hospital, Woodman ended driving five hours to pick her up. After the episode Martin opened up about her struggle with mental illness. But sadly the friction continued, and after another episode (Martin ended up in an institution in Santa Fe), Martin was gone; their working relationship was over.
If Agnes Martin and Me accomplishes one thing — it highlights how one person (Woodman) came to terms with another person’s mental illness (Martin). But the book is so much more than that, worthy of attention on multiple levels. And, yes, Martin and Woodman did reconcile before her death, largely because Martin got the help she needed.
But back to my question: how is a person to help someone that is hurting the helper (like Woodman was with Martin)? The answer to the question came during Woodman’s presentation, causing me to pause and think through the question more deeply. Woodman pointed out that as he walked through a museum celebration of Martin’s work in Europe, he was comparing the high praise he was reading and hearing about with the reality of her life. It was during this time that Woodman came up with a theory concerning Martin: “She developed a visual language to stop the voices that were constantly in her head; to bring quiet to that, so she could get to the things she painted. She didn’t paint about sophisticated things. She was interested in beauty, joy, and innocence.” In short, one of the reasons Martin painted to push away the pain of mental illness.
And unbeknownst to Woodman — he gave me an outline to ponder: how to help people with mental illness. The three words, beauty, joy, and innocence, are key. And though Woodman didn’t give these three words as a point-by-point remedy for helping the mentally ill, I think they can be subtle guides to ensure that the helper or mentally ill person is not hurt to the point of no return.
Beauty: As made in the image of God, people point to the beauty of God, His creative acts in the world. People have purpose and meaning because of God’s image—His print, if you will—in our lives. And when that print is scarred and the beauty defaced (as with all people, the mentally ill are subject to sin, the self, the world, etc.), we need to ask: what’s the remedy for the repair? The clearest answer is a relationship with God in Christ. But what if the person can’t fully comprehend the theology due to their mental illness (such as a severe case of schizophrenia)? At this point, love must manifest: we are to love the unlovable, even if it is from a distance. If the helper of the mentally ill becomes harmed in a relationship, it doesn’t mean he or she should stop loving the person. No. The helper needs to employ the language of love. And love requires that we help — maybe not personally, but through encouragement, recommendations, prayer, and assistance, helping the person find the services needed from proper professionals: psychologists, licensed Christian counselors, and doctors — people equipped to deal with the illness. When we see beauty in a person, our reaction should not be to balk at their condition, but help the person blossom into what God intends for them. So exercise love, finding God’s beauty in the barrenness of mental illness by helping the person find hope.
Joy: If part of what it means to be human is to find purpose and meaning in life—something beyond just being happy (a state that is always in flux due to feelings)—then joy is something we must remember. Joy isn’t something that we possess (as C.S. Lewis would remind us: “It is never a possession”), but a longing for the kind of existence God intends for us, a deep, lasting character of life, something we press and continually seek. So the question is: how do we help a mentally ill person discover meaning in life—joy? For those with mild forms of mental illness the answer is like any human being: it’s first found in Christ, and then in the things that delight Him as worked out through the person’s passions and pursuits. But the answer can get complicated the more serious the mental illness, requiring professional insight (see above). But there is a simple side to the equation as well: what brings the person joy? As pointed out above, Agnes Martin found joy in painting. As Woodman pointed out, Agnes Martin was able to use her art to help with her mental illness, keeping the voices at bay. Other people have found joy in a host of other things: serving others, creativity, and the pursuit of God . And again, if a helper finds himself or herself hurt beyond that which is helpful, then point the person with mental illness to another mentor or professional, someone that will help the person pursue joy.
Innocence: This third area is a little more difficult to express. I use the word innocence not in the theological sense — as a person’s moral state of being (someone free from sin or guilt), but as another meaning of the word: simplicity and harmlessness. In the first sense of the word a pastor or counselor would need to unpack how one is to view innocence. But in the second definition of the word — simplicity and harmlessness — are found key factors that can act as guidelines in the relationship. First is simplicity. Is the relationship with the mentally ill person simple? Are you helping the person find God’s beauty and joy in life? Are you imaginative in your insight, keeping the person focused on the things that are important to them and their world? Or is your relationship complicated, beyond the scope of your ability to comprehend their condition and care for the person? Do you find yourself confusing the person — and yourself? If it is complicated, then find a mentor to help you simplify the situation, or direct the mentally ill person to a professional. Second is harmlessness. As someone trying to help a mentally ill person you must ensure you are not harming them or yourself—with bad advice, unproven theories, or unbiblical challenges (“the Bible doesn’t say anything about mental illness, therefore you are ‘demon possessed,’ etc.). If your relationship with a mentally ill person is harmful to them or you, find a new path to tread, turning the person over to a mentor or professional. In the end, you should seek innocence—a pure heart in helping them to hope. Sometimes people with mental illness just need a listening ear and hopeful heart. If you’re that person, great, if not, don’t let help turn to hurt.
Not let me be clear: I’m not a professional Christian counselor, nor do I claim that the advice given above is textbook clean. No. Rather as a minister with over 20 years of counseling experience and as one whose extended family has had severe mental illness (my grandfather was diagnosed as schizophrenic with delusions of grandeur), I have seen the harm given to both parties in treating mental illness. My point in this article is simple, going back to something Andrea Jongbloed (who struggles with mental illness herself) writes in the conclusion of her article:
“The common stigma against mental illness is exactly what led my pastor and the church leadership to have a negative view of my condition. In light of this, we the people of God have an invitation. In Mark 12:31 Jesus tells us to “love your neighbor as yourself.” I believe welcoming someone with a mental illness into Church is a great place to exhibit this.
“Be open to learning about mental illness. Have potentially awkward conversations with newcomers who struggle with their mental health. You won’t regret stepping outside your comfort zone. You will be blessed with stories of struggle, resilience and redemption. If you’re lucky, maybe you’ll even become part of someone’s story of recovery and reconciliation with the Church.”
Towards this end, I say amen. Use the framework of beauty, joy, and innocence as an outline for resilience and redemption. And like the portrait Donald Woodman painted in his book, Agnes Martin and Me, the story of working with someone with mental illness can either hurt or help. For Woodman it hurt. For others it can help. In the end, my prayer is that it will heal, bringing hope to everyone involved.
Photo captions: 1) Agnes Martin photo by Donald Woodman. 2) Donald Woodman portrait. 3) Agnes Martin by Donald Woodman. 4) Brian Nixon.
About the writer: Brian Nixon is a writer, musician, and minister. He’s a graduate of California State University, Stanislaus (BA) and is a Fellow at Oxford Graduate School (D.Phil.). As a published author, editor, radio host, recording artist, and visual artist, Brian spends his free time with his three children and wife, painting, writing music, reading, and visiting art museums. To learn more, click here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brian_Nixon.
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