This review was originally published in the Australian Army Chaplaincy Journal (2021), 107-108.
A question people often ask is “Where is God?” It is a common question we ask in the midst of frustrating or painful circumstances – usually implying that we are unsure whether or how God is present. It is also a good theological question to ask curiously in any context – hopefully implying that we believe God is there but want to discern what God is doing. The question about God’s presence and activity is especially difficult regarding mental illness. Mental health challenges have their own suffering, but the stigma and misrepresentation increases the pain and anguish. Moreover, people of faith can have other overlays of disappointment wondering where God and church fits with their struggle.
Finding Jesus in the Storm is about how spirituality interacts with mental health challenges for the Christians who John Swinton interviewed and worked with. Swinton is a professor of practical theology and pastoral care and founding director of the Centre for Spirituality, Health, and Disability at the University of Aberdeen. He draws on his background as a nurse in mental health and learning disabilities, a community mental health chaplain, and a minister; but is also one of the UK’s most respected pastoral theologians especially in mental health and also aged care.
The core strength of the book is listening to and understanding the lived experience of people with Christian faith who are living with the mental health challenges of bipolar disorder, depression, and schizophrenia. The descriptions are not focused on curing, although they sometimes address paths to healing or how the people are seeking to live well with unconventional mental health experiences. The book goes beyond the usual thin descriptions or presumptuous portrayals to thicker narratives that are made possible by the qualitative research interview process that was spread over 2 years. It offers empathetic insights into the deep and complex pain – including showing how thoughts of suicide are understandable given the grinding exhaustion and abandonment that all too often goes with mental illness. The heartfelt expression throughout the book does not lead to any 'x' number of steps of response, but does invite compassionate caregivers to listen and care empathetically:
“This tension between inner pain and numbness toward outer life makes it difficult to grasp any potential goodness in life. People can talk all they want about someone being loved and valued, but if you can’t feel that or if your inner pain makes it impossible even to consider such a thing as being possible, words make little difference.”
Swinton explains some of the ambiguities and complexities of diagnosis and treatment. We appreciated Swinton’s critique of how politically charged mental health diagnosis can become; with dehumanising checklists, dangers of reductive explanation, and the lack of rigorousness in classification with WHO’s International Classification of Diseases (ICD) and APA’s Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). He explores the associated biological processes alongside social, cultural, interpersonal and spiritual dimensions.
Attention to spirituality in mental health is helpful when psychosis and schizophrenia often includes hearing voices and other spiritually significant experiences. Unexplainable psychological distress has too often been explained away by ascribing it to sin or demonic influence, which is lazy analysis according to Swinton. Depression can foster a sense of God being absent, but Swinton advises seeing this as an invitation to lament and authenticity. For example, Anna explained how depression changed her view of God:
“It’s affected my theology in that I think I find it a little bit harder to, not to trust … I don’t know if I would say I find it harder to trust God, but I find it difficult to have a certain kind of trust. There’s no longer, like, whenever people have theological platitudes that essentially, like, God will just make everything OK if we trust him, I definitely don’t have that sort of theology anymore.”
Swinton counsels that faith can express itself in trusting God as being in medicine and frames taking meds as a deeply spiritual act; a way to reconnect with God, self and others. Medication can work not just to alleviate symptoms but affect a soul’s positive view. Yet wholeness does not come just through medicine but through relationships in community, including ecclesial support. Mental health challenges does stretch faith and it becomes all the more important to “hold faith for one another”. Seemingly intangible factors such as love, belonging and meaningful work are antidepressant influences.
Finding Jesus in the Storm is highly recommended reading for those experiencing mental health challenges or those supporting them. It is also offers a fruitful model of research centred on understanding through listening to lived experience.