Christians have sometimes (not always) overlooked the importance of mental health. Yet due to our current crisis, many of us have begun to register concerns for mental health.
Here, we are following an emphasis found within traditional Christian teaching. As Michael Foley notes, Paul employs the lens of the will along psychological lines (e.g., Romans 7). Augustine in particular reflected on Scripture and the nature of the soul and developed a deep understanding of human psychology in his Confessions.
The emphasis continued through the medieval and post-reformation period. The English Puritans, for example, wrote constantly on the depths of our inner life, motivations, downs, ups, and everything in-between.
From this retrieval of Christian psychology, a problem has arisen. Some commentators have made the argument that lockdowns are the cause of mental health decline. That is an impossible claim to make because correlation does not imply causation and because 2020 evinces a whole set of possible causes for mental decline.
Christian theology and observational science should make us aware of other causes that contribute to mental health decline. One likely contributing cause is the fear of death. Death anxiety, as Ernst Becker and the author of Hebrews (Heb 2:14–15) have noted, constitutes a major enslaving and powerful psychological force. Coronavirus in the minds of many threatens death, and we naturally should fear such a great evil, a corruption and curse.
If that is the case, one might argue that restrictions prevent further mental health decline because they seem to protect against death. I am not making this argument, however! I am using it to illustrate the point that tying causes to effects is not always easy, especially when an effect likely has a great deal many causes behind it.
To be clear, then, I am not claiming death anxiety is the only cause. I am suggesting that COVID-19 restrictions cannot be cited as the cause without requisite data and analysis to make that cause. The correlation between thoughts of suicide and restrictions may seem enticing, but as noted, it is not hard to come up with other possible causes.
Recently, a Japanese friend of mine expressed frustration that individuals used a Fox News article to argue that Japan’s suicide increase occured due to lockdowns. While Japan has some restrictions, it has not locked down! Japan has many other reasons that seem to explain the increase in suicides, although restrictions may very well contribute to mental health decline among many other causes.
To cite Japan’s rising suicide rate, then, as primarily caused by lockdowns improperly cites data for the sake of alleviating restrictions. It is not obvious that restrictions as such are the primary or a significant cause—though I think it is safe to assume they play a role.
Health and the Cross
I think it is also important to consider the form and goal of the arguments that we make. The arguments that I have seen sound like this: lockdowns cause mental health decline; openness and the church’s freedom to have full occupancy will delete the increase in mental health issues.
While Christians may nuance this argument in all sorts of ways (many of which may be good), I want to focus on one implication of the argument. That implication is: if you go to church, then your depression will go away. I know that few people make this argument explicitly (or implicitly). Yet the idea or ones similar to it seem to pop up from time-to-time. So it is worth discussing, even if it is more of an exploration than any sort of direct rebuttal.
In the first place, the church does not cure mental health problems. That sounds like the prosperity Gospel. The opposite is often true. Paul felt himself to be the worst among sinners. He engaged in a vicious battle of flesh and mind as Romans 7 illustrates. Martin Luther in particular never overcame his mental health crisis. As Luther’s friend Phllip Melancthon reports:
On those frequent occasions when he was thinking especially about the wrath of God or about extraordinary instances of retribution, such violent terrors afflicted him that he almost died. I have seen him, distressed by his concentration upon some dispute over doctrine, lie down on a bed in a nearby room and mingle with his prayer this oft-repeated sentence: ‘He has concluded all under sin so that he may have mercy upon all.’ (Steinmetz, 2002: 1)
The idea that all forms of sadness or worry disappears with Christianity follows the promise of the prosperity Gospel—not the promise of the man of sorrows who calls us to the same cruciform life. We hope for what we do not yet possess—that beatific vision when all tears and worries get wiped away.
We live in the tension of sorrow and hope, joy and sadness. We are waiting for the Son of God to appear to make all things right. So we can have joy now, not because now promises perfect joy, but because hope in Christ guarantees it will.
In the second place, God has so created means of grace that sustain us in this life that going to church as one means of grace among many others will help us stand steady even in unsteady times. While going to church may not eliminate our trauma, it can supply us the grace to endure it.
While the Gospel does not fix all our problems per se, it and the means of grace, which God provides, give us the strength to persevere unto the end.
We Yet Grow
This is not to say that we do not grow from one level of glory to another. We do grow. We can change. But our life here means we struggle with our body of flesh as we hope in the resurrection.
The body of flesh vies against our minds (Rom 7:22–23). Yet we have the mind of Christ (1 Cor 2:16). Which means that the Spirit makes Christ’s mind present in us (Phil 2:5) so that we can say that Christ lives in us (Gal 2:20). The mind, that immaterial capacity to reason and guide our whole self, becomes the central means by which the Holy Spirit makes Christ’s life present in us (e.g., Rom 12:2). The result is we live and walk by the Spirit to the glory of the Father.
We can have every hope that our inner selves are being renewed day-by-day. Hence, we progressively can and should win against our flesh. But that does not guarantee that no trial or anxiety will threaten us to despair. Or else why did Jesus sweat like blood in the garden? Or why did Paul have anxiety over the Corinthians?
Christians and non-Christians alike may experience their bodies and their bodies’ effects on the brain, gut, and elsewhere in various ways. Trauma leaves its mark like the pierced hands of Jesus after the resurrection. But hope will win, and even now the Gospel can sustain us but not remove the thorn in our flesh. We suffer in hope—we lament in joy.
What should we say?
Christians have wonderfully and rightly shown concern for mental health issues. And certainly, the connection between isolation and mental health seems strong. Isolation often leads to distress—or why would parents give timeouts to children, and why would prisons confine some to solitary confinement?
It is right to suggest that COVID-19 restrictions contribute to mental health decline. It is wrong, however, to identify it as the cause. The causes are likely many, and the primary ones may not even directly touch the restrictions since the fear of death, as noted, creates death anxiety—a well-known phenomenon. And many more causes besides could be given.
Related to this point, we should avoid arguments like the single cause argument proposed above for the sake of gaining back our freedoms. That seems too mercantile. I know that many make these arguments in good faith. So I leave this as a warning not as a universal accusation.
We should also avoid the implication that removing restrictions (sometimes incorrectly called lockdowns) will necessarily delete the increase in mental health problems or even chip away at the already existent mental health crises we have.
Asaph knew that the faithful did not always live a perfect life (Ps 73). He knew that the wicked often get it good in this life. The good sometimes do not. He knew that a renewed vision of God in his temple and that the hope that justice will come in the end is what God promises. God does not promise to fix all of our problems in this life. We retain the consequences of earlier sin now. We suffer like the man of sorrows before us. We bear our cross.
The difference is that we do so in hope. We do so for the joy set before us (Heb 12:2). And as we experience in joy in this life, we know that it gives us preliminarily a foretaste of that vision of God that will bring rest to every weary saint.
In the end, Christians can include mental health decline as one valid reason to reduce restrictions. But we should do so on the basis of evidence that persuasively ties the cause to the effect in balanced proportion to other causes.
We should then be aware of the other causes. We should do all of this in a spirit of love and care for our fellow humans, loving them as God loves the world. Stop improperly citing lockdowns (usually not lockdowns but restrictions) as the cause. Include lockdowns and restrictions as contributors, weighed in the balance, and ensure that the Gospel we proclaim provides the hope that it promises.
It matters not least of which because one in ten Canadians have had thoughts of suicide. We need to give them real hope. The Gospel won’t fix them if that fix means all mental health issues will disappear, although that may happen if God so wills. The Gospel finally gives us hope for the end of all things, even if they like Luther and many others besides live with a thorn of depression at their side. We do not preach health and wealth but Christ and him crucified.