The moral crisis of mental illness

When we admit that mental illness has been a factor in many of the mass shootings that have happened, we are confronted with a moral crisis. As someone who takes pills every morning to make my mind work, I have often concluded that the world is divided between people who take mental health pills and those who don’t. People who don’t take these pills live in a world where a morality of individual responsibility works. Good choices get rewarded; bad choices get punished; and there’s no reason to blame anyone else for your bad choices. But when you go through the experience of actually losing your mind, that moral system crumbles and you face a true existential crisis.

Many Christians bemoan the fact that our world no longer calls people right or wrong, but says instead that they are sick or healthy. In the old days, the nuns would just smack your hand with a ruler if you squirmed too much in your seat; now the teachers send you to a psychologist. Parents are ushered into school meetings where instead of reporting their kids’ “misbehavior” for which consequences can be meted out, the teacher, principal, school psychologist, and occupational therapist share their theories about which syndrome their child can be tested for.

It smells like the same kind of “secular humanism” which says we should stop putting drug abusers in jail and give them therapy instead. On one level I agree with that; it’s absurd to throw poor kids in jail for smoking a blunt so that they’ll intermingle with kids who got in more serious trouble and get corrupted even further. But there’s something offensive about the fact that nobody can be right or wrong anymore. It smells like a compromise of the truth, a “moral relativism.”

Of course, when I remember my own story, I have to admit there was a time when I really was helpless. If you’ve never experienced being depressed for no reason, you won’t believe me when I say that there were several months when I really couldn’t do anything. There’s no way to describe it in words that won’t sound like wallowing in self-pity or navel-gazing. I can’t explain why, but at a job I held briefly in my early twenties, I would go into my work, turn on my computer, stare at the screen for hours, and then go home. Because of the nature of my position at the time, my complete incapacity didn’t trigger any red flags. And that became part of the depression: the overwhelming weight of guilt. There was actually a tremendous psychosomatic weight in my chest. It was like having a lead medallion inside my heart.

When I see people who are unproductive in the workplace, it’s very hard to judge them because of what I went through. Again, it probably sounds like I was just “beating myself up” or “focusing all of my attention on myself.” I certainly had those accusations in my mind as a part of that strange, bewildering experience. But the blessing of that season of accursedness was that it left me with was a new moral system.

Instead of defining morality on the axis of right vs. wrong, I define it now on the axis of dependence vs. self-reliance. There are those who recognize that they can do nothing without God and those who need for our world to be a meritocracy in which those who do what’s right get rewarded and those who do what’s wrong get punished. I’m not sure exactly how to distinguish between the healthy dependence in which God’s strength is made perfect in our weakness and the unhealthy dependency of an ungrateful freeloader who cynically exploits the mercy of others, except to say that denial is at play in the latter in a way that it isn’t in the former. Perhaps the healthy dependence has discovered the joy of receiving the gifts of God and being grateful for every opportunity to gain meaning and taste God’s mercy more deeply through serving Him and other people.

What I know is that the more I learn not to view the world as a meritocracy, the more I am able to face my flaws with integrity and ask God for deliverance from them. The ultimate moral question then is not whether we are responsible people; it is whether we are vulnerable people who have been broken and blessed by God for the sake of sharing His mercy with others. There is certainly a right and a wrong in the universe, but it has less to do with obeying an abstract list of “Thou shalts” and “Thou shalt nots” and more to do with gaining a foundational disposition of grateful worship to our Creator and generous mercy to our fellow humans.

Our gratitude and mercy will not prevent people with broken minds from doing horrible things, but it’s still the best that we can do and the basic structure of the peaceable kingdom that God offers as a remedy to those who wish to flee a violent, ruthlessly competitive world. Do not disdain the needs of the mentally ill. When they are loved and nurtured despite what might seem to be frustrating self-indulgent melodrama, they can grow up to be pastors who know that God’s grace is the only ground upon which they stand and who yearn for everyone else to discover that grace.


36 thoughts on “The moral crisis of mental illness

  1. I apologise in advance – I hate it when people comment on my blog just in order to link to a post on their own blog, but in this case I’m going to commit the same crime! I’ve suffered from mental health issues for many years (since before my Christian conversion), and I’ve expressed my thoughts on the complicated relationship between Christian faith and mental health problems here: I think it addresses a number of issues relating to your post and to comments above.
    All the very best,

  2. Think positively and talk positively are different. I didn’t mean be politically correct. Nor did I mean that a complaint like that of Job is ungodly. Isn’t it amazing how many people will tell you that its wrong to ever ask questions like “Why me?” when the book of Job is one giant vindication of a man who did exactly that.

    “Why not just say I’m nobody but I’ve got an awesome God who is kind enough to let me participate in His awesome?” Because that’s stupid. What have you done that’s so bad you really feel you are a nobody? Murder? Rape? I doubt it. So then get over that Calvinist crap. Jesus says “You are the light of the world” and “You are the salt of the earth.” Its the devil who tells you that you are nobody.

    • Academic theology can do nothing but depress. “You are garbage; you are a filthy dirty sinner; you are nothing; you are a worm; you are dung.” But Jesus, he never speaks like that. You are the salt of the earth, you are the light of the world. Blessed are you when men persecute you for my sake for so they persecuted the prophets before you. He puts us on par with the prophets! He knows how to encourage. The academics only know how to discourage. They spent too much time in their dark monk cells and not enough in the light of God’s creation like Jesus did, as Thomas Paine puts it.

      • Yes, but humility is opposed to arrogance not pride. Surely Jesus was proud, but not arrogant. What else is “a greater than Solomon is here” if not pride?

    • “Nobody” in the sense that I am filled with something from beyond me. Humility doesn’t have to be self-deprecation. It’s just that I hate the part of me which obsesses over my achievements. I am very proud of my writing abilities. I think I’m an awesome preacher and a genius musician. I take a lot of pleasure in demolishing other people in arguments. And then when I look back the next day, I feel ashamed because I was more interested in tearing them down than in patiently sharing God’s love. I just don’t see when the pride that I experience has been a constructive, positive thing.

      • Your talking about the “pride” that delights in calling everyone else a heretic; I wouldn’t call that pride but fundamentalism.

        • I agree with you that what makes someone a fundamentalist as opposed to just a committed Christian who is passionate about their holiness is what I call pride and you call arrogance. The other term I use is “self-justification.” You can click on the tags to the right to see some of what I’ve written about that. I mostly use the term pride is for the sake of communicating with people who use that as their terminology. But I also don’t see any positive role for exalting myself. I can rejoice for my success if it’s rejoicing in God’s mercy to me but not as self-idolatry.

      • One of the worst things about fundamentalism is that it is arrogant on the pre-text of removing pride. For example, anyone who says people should live morally must be shouted down because that will lead people to pride in their works–no it must be all of faith so their is no pride. Yet the fundamentalist is arrogant about his faith, how much better his faith is, how smart he is because he understands all the knotty issues involved in understanding the Bible exactly right to have the perfect ‘Biblical’ and ‘orthodox’ faith. He is eaten up with arrogance, but he attacks pride. He thinks that attacking those who live moral lives is removing pride, while he is arrogant about his faith and his (imagined) intellectual superiority which is worse.

  3. Mind altering drugs are sometimes the lesser of two evils
    Sometimes they are the evil.
    We will have to wait to see what the latest case reveals but chances are this 20 year old diagnosed with some mental disorders was on some form of mental altering drug.

    Donald Schell,
    Was taking Paxil. He shot and kill his wife, daughter and granddaughter before killing himself. The jury awarded surviving family members $8 million.

    Yates was given Effexor at a dosage nearly twice the recommended maximum limit. Just days before the murders, the Effexor was for some reason reduced to just slightly more than the recommended maximum dosage of 225 mg per day and the Remeron was added. Yates was found not guilty by reason of insanity at her second trial.

    Columbine High School massacre
    Eric Harris, was taking Luvox,

    Kip Kinkel, 15-shot and killed his parents, killed two and wounded 22 of his fellow students at Thurston High School. was taking Prozac.

    Joseph Wesbecker was on Prozac in September 1989 when he walked into his workplace, an Indianapolis printing plant, shot dead eight colleagues, wounded 12 others, and killed himself
    Kristine Marie Cushing, shot and killed both of her children, She had been taking Prozac

    Shane Clancy was on Celexa

    • Sometimes people are fooled into thinking they can’t work through their depression without drugs because precisely of their “I can’t do it theologies” that teach we humans are incapable of doing anything good. A little positive thinking can go a long way, and so can a dash of good pride in something good. Not saying medication is never an option, but our society is so infused with defeatist theology that it always jumps to medicating someone out of their mind as the first option. People are seen as incapable of doing anything without a higher power controlling them, so we dope them up and allow a supernatural power access to their minds which the dope has lulled to sleep…only it turns out to be the wrong supernatural power that enters their sleepy minds.

      • I think your journey has just been different than mine. My experience has been one of gaining comfort and peace with my wounds and inadequacies. When people tell me to think positively, it’s usually in the context of trying to silence something I’m saying that they don’t want to hear. The kind of positive thinking that makes sense to me is worship, not because its pious but because it changes how I see what happens around me. I don’t need to exalt myself to experience peace and joy. It feels more liberating to me to thank God for giving me wisdom or allowing me to be a vessel of His mercy or whatever else whenever I accomplish something. It’s exhausting to focus my energy on defending my ego. Why not just say I’m nobody but I’ve got an awesome God who is kind enough to let me participate in His awesome?

  4. You asked if God assigns equal culpability to sin despite the unequal degree of harm caused? I can respond no better than to model the humble psalmists who knew that life is not “fair and equal” (Psalm 25), yet they continued to wait and believe in a fair and just God with thanksgiving in their hearts! Apples (spiritual pride) and oranges (mental illness) are in the shopping cart of this discussion, providing the need for on-going clarity across the board, proving what I believe(correct me if I am wrong) is your point.

    • Right. I would say that spiritual pride can combine with mental illness and yield a different result than by itself. I think God’s judgment of sin concerns the moral disposition at its root rather than the actual measure of the harm. Otherwise accidents would be no different than willed acts of malice.

  5. I don’t want to be annoying, so this will be my last post tonight. But it just dawned on me why this post bothers me so much. How do you get over depression without pride in something? Even taking an antidepressant every day for the rest of your life, how without pride, can you get out of it? No medicine on earth is powerful enough to overcome depression without a little help from positive pride.

    • It depends on what you’re calling pride. In the sense in which I use the word here, it has a specific connotation. It’s putting forward a front of flawlessness and thus being in denial about your mistakes. If you define pride as owning your brokenness and not being ashamed of it, then I can see your point.

      • What I’m saying is that religious people are behindthe times in the usage of the English language thanks to Bible translators purposefully refusing to write “arrogance” rather than “pride” and that a lot of psycholrogical damage is caused by preachers and Bible-thumpers misuing the word “pride” as if its a synonym for “arrogance.” My point is that pride should only be used for the positive connotation and arrogance for the negative connotations; this is in reality how the terms are used by the rest of society. In fact, if you don’t go to church then the only people you will see using “pride” as if it means “arrogance” are the arrogant TV villains who dare berate the heroes about the evils of “pride.” Like if you were to watch Smallville, Lex Luther the arrogant psychopath is always preaching to Clark about how “pride” is the greatest of the seven deadly sins. This fits my experience in real life: Only the arrogant use the word pride in a negative sense. And why do the arrogant use the word pride in a negative sense? Because they want everyone to feel inferior to them, and how better to do it than to attack everyone else’s sense of self-worth. Its the same reason that so many cults teach their people to think of themselves as dung and worms who can’t do anything right, to create a sense of dependency on the cult.

  6. Furthermore, pride prevents substance abuse. If one has pride in family, church, something, they are unlikely to drug themselves into oblivion. But arrogance in which nothing external to themselves matters–no family, no church, no nothing–motivates substance abuse.

    • Really even pride in oneself prevents substance abuse and violence. If one is proud of their moral living, they will not tarnish it by killing someone. But arrogance is an inflated sense of self-worth not based on anything at all. Pride is either based on achievement or relationships. Arrogance is based on nothing. Because arrogance is based on nothing, it has no power to motivate towards good or demotivate from evil but rather motivated to evil.

  7. “But there’s something offensive about the fact that nobody can be right or wrong anymore. It smells like a compromise of the truth, a “moral relativism.”
    A good blog, Morgan, provocative comments included. Without proof to the contrary, we want to believe that a person who murders small children/adults in such numbers MUST be mentally ill, right?
    “Normal” people do horrific things. Has murder become subjective? Abortion is murder, but we dont normally attibute it to mental illness. Once upon a time epilepsy was called a mental/spiritual illness (and depression was laziness). Is a child less culpable of carnage than an adult? We live in a time where being PC is more important than setting clear expectations for personal,social and moral behavior. We need those “Thou shall/shall not”(s), not as abstracts, but as a foundation for rational and compassionate discussion like this.
    As a former health care professional and parent of a child “who takes medication everyday”, it is clear that not every person who suffers a diagnosis’ exacts violent behavior, with or without medication. We are ALL broken, vulnerable people but I believe there is certainly a distinct right and wrong in the Universe, as we are also mandated to show Christian mercy and acknowledge God’s omnipotent judgement. Thankfully, God’s Mercy covers it all.

    • I guess one of the distinctions that has to be made is between the boundaries that need to be set for the safety and welfare of a community and how we culpability is assessed on the volitional level within people. Because of the existence of mental illness, culpability is a variable rather than having uniformity between people. Some people really are being lazy; others are depressed. Some kids really do have an attitude problem; others have Tourette’s. So from the perspective of the needs of the community, the boundaries aren’t any different, but from the perspective of individual responsibility, they’re not uniform.

      The one uniform thing we can say is that spiritual pride is the root of all other sin, whether it manifests as an egomaniacal sociopathy that results in large-scale catastrophes, or just as a patronizing condescension and sense of entitlement. I think the person who lives in privilege and comfort and is as swollen with pride as the deranged sociopath is no less culpable before God despite the drastic difference in the scale of harm that has resulted from their pride. Is that fair do you think?

    • Now see, pride in one’s family ought to prevent them from killing their child, since it should be a shame to do so, and they should say “I wouldn’t want people saying ‘Her parents are failure. Look at her, murdering her unborn child.” Or pride in one’s church: “I will not kill my baby because I don’t want to give the Catholics a handle to attack Baptists with” one might think for instance if they had pride in being a Baptist. But arrogance, on the other hand, says “I alone matter. Who cares about this baby. Who cares how badly this reflects on my parents or my church. Only I matter.”

  8. Mental illness exists.
    Be;ieve it.
    Anyone that has worked with or is affiliated with someone in the mental health field will tell you all about it.
    Persons with mental illnes have been known to pluck their own eyes from their sockets, mutilate themsives and others.
    Schizophrenics that do not take their meds have auditory hallucinations become paranoid and have delusions.
    Patients that suffer from the deepest form of depression can be thrown into a coma like state.
    They are fed thu a tube are unresponsive to stimuli.

    Today we have way too many people and way too many kids on prescription mind altering drugs.
    The side effects of coming off those drugs without a doctors supervision can throw the person into a chaotic state. There is no question about that.

    There are also evil people.
    There are people that do not have the ability to feel for others.
    Then there are the Ted Bundy types.

    Check to see how many of these kids are on some form of prescription drug.
    You would be surprised.

  9. Unlike my preceding commentators, I like this post. It’s really sad that our medical system has nothing else to offer besides more pills. In another era, a more holistic approach would have been applied and would have yielded better results. In the past, we lived in a connected world of community and faith…now we pretend that social media and cell phones ‘connect us better than ever before.’ I know so much of this personal to you Morgan, so try hard to not take any of the comments personally. The world needs more creative thinkers like you do, and we need more people who are willing to open a conversation like this, even if it requires that personal introspection.

    • Oh don’t worry. I’m not offended by anything. I’ve dealt with these things in the past. Now it’s just the story of my journey.

  10. This mentally unstable guy was clearly taken over by dark forces : add a violent society with a lot of weapons and this is the result. Also certain “medication” can cause rage so that has to be investigated as well. I also experienced the hell of depression but the thought never even occurred to murder someone. Only love, peace and understanding can restore this fallen world.

  11. ” If you’ve never experienced being depressed for no reason, you won’t believe me when I say that there were several months when I really couldn’t do anything.”

    Been there. But your want to make depression morally equivalent to mass murder? REALY?????? You were depressed and couldn’t do anything for months. Me too. I didn’t murder anyone. Did you? Somehow I doubt it. Don’t make depression morally equivalent to being a serial killer….I mean seriously.

    • I’m not sure I made that comparison. You inferred it from what I said. I took the question of mental illness that had come up in the school shooting as a point of departure.

      • You certainly did make the comparison, since you insinuate that your experience has shaken your moral sense. How I don’t understand. I’ve been depressed. I’ve had a nervous breakdown. I’ve felt like I was going crazy. Yet none of that made me violent or murderous. So I don’t understand this statement of yours: “But when you go through the experience of actually losing your mind, that moral system crumbles and you face a true existential crisis.” How does losing your mind make your moral system crumble? I can understand being agree at God and crying out “Why me?” but going on a murder spree??? I don’t see it. So whether you will acknowledge it or not you made the comparison, and I think it deserves more explanation how you think depression can make your moral system crumble. I know one thing and only one thing that can make your moral system crumble: the human will. One can crumble the system by simply deciding not to abide by it anymore, or what amounts to the same thing, by abusing drugs to the point where they are incapable of thinking in moral terms anymore because they’ve killed the moral consciousness purposefully with substance abuse.

  12. “But when you go through the experience of actually losing your mind, that moral system crumbles and you face a true existential crisis.”

    I don’t buy it. You can lose your mind all you want, but evil is evil not mental illness. I can see a person losing their mind and sitting in the corner talking to a cereal box…I can’t see them losing their mind and calculating a way to kill a mass amount of people, calmly putting together bullet proof vests and ammo and preparing for it. Its easy to call these people crazy when in reality they are just evil. Crazy people are eccentric; these people are evil.

    • It’s not all or nothing. Also evil and craziness are not mutually exclusive. Evil actually makes people crazy even though you can be crazy without having been made that way by evil. People are not evil. People DO evil for a mix of reasons. The question is where we evaluate culpability in our moral framework. I think a Biblical moral framework considers pride and humility to be the basis for culpability rather than the blameworthiness of our harmful actions. People who are prideful, whether it’s because they’re on a dopamine overload and are diagnosibly manic or simply because they’re arrogant, are going to be more susceptible to hurting others than people who are humble enough to be comfortably open with their flaws and take them seriously.

      • Two points:

        (1) I’m convinced that DRUGS has more to do with the recent shooting than “mental illness.” If by mental illness we mean a genuine disorder not cause or induced by usage of recreational drugs, then I would absolutely say mental illness had nothing to do with any of it. If you are defining “mental illness” in a liberal way, and including in it those who brought it on themselves by drug abuse, I would say you are contributing to the problem by mislabeling the terms. It is the drug culture that is causing this, not genuine mental illness.

        (2) Don’t confuse pride and arrogance. Unfortunately modern English Bible translations haven’t kept up well with one change in the English language that’s taken place since 1611. Pride is a positive and arrogance has taken on all the negative aspects. The translation “Pride goeth before the fall” is wrong, and not because of the obsolete -eth ending, but because in modern English it ought to be translated “Arrogance goes before the fall.” Pride is a positive that keeps you from doing bad things, its why when you left the house as a teen your parents said something like “Remember who you are and who you represent.” Pride in your family, in who you represent, keeps you from going on a mass murder spree; Arrogance, however, may very well cause you to go on one. Perpetuating this misuse of language wherein “pride” is an evil is counterproductive. And I don’t agree with your assessment that “a Biblical moral framework considers pride and humility to be the basis for culpability rather than the blameworthiness of our harmful actions” either. A “humble” murder is still murder, and an “arrogant and grandeous act of saving someone from a burning building is still a save; the “humble” murder would still be culpable even if the arrogant save is not particularly praiseworthy. Yet, is it possible to commit a “humble” murder? I think not. One would indeed have to be arrogant to commit murder. One who was humble would bot commit murder. One who was prideful would also not commit murder for pride would prevent him or her from destroying their image and tarnishing their family or church affiliation or whatever other group they had pride in.

      • In fact I will make one more point. I think Calvinism and similar pride-attacking strains of Christianity cause a great deal of evil behavior by not allowing people to have pride in anything. If this comment ends up above the other one, please read that one to understand the distinction I am making between the words pride and arrogance. But its pride that prevents us from doing evil. We don’t want to do bad things that reflect on our family, on our church, on Christ, on whatever other group we may be affiliated with…pride in these things prevents bad action. When we are constantly told pride is bad, don’t have pride, it builds up resentment against the world that most likely WILL manifest itself as violent behavior at some point. We need pride in some affiliation with a group. But arrogance is different. Arrogance is the idea that everyone else is lower than us and doesn’t even deserve to live, that they are wastes of space and we are so much better. Arrogance is in fact what steps in when your throw pride out. If you don’t have pride in your family affiliation, or your church affiliation, or something positive like that, then you will have the arrogance of thinking everyone else is subhuman and your alone are really human and can deal with these subhuman beasts in whatever manner you want. Pride is the solution; arrogance is the self-centered substitute that takes over when moronic church officials outlaw pride. Attacking pride fuels the problem.

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