Why, my soul, are you downcast?
Why so disturbed within me?
Put your hope in God,
for I will yet praise him,
my Savior and my God
I have a confession to make: I am afraid of china-headed dolls. It’s okay if you laughed; my sixth grade students always did when we talked about our fears and hopes for the new school year. Like most fears that might appear irrational, mine is seated in reality.
My grandmother loved dolls and she had quite a few of the china-headed variety, including one with eyes that could open and close. She decided to have the wig section—a removable part of the head—replaced. And she showed me what it looked like on the inside—shudder—of the dolly.
I was horrified.
If you’ve never peeked into the head of a china doll, I advise against it. While the doll may look lifelike, on the inside the eyes are joined by a metal bar and a weight hangs from it into the empty head, an ingenuous little mechanism designed to make the eyes open and close and scare little girls to death.
This past Sunday, I listened to Pastor Tim talk about the invisibility of mental illness, depression, and other funky feelings, and my mind clearly recalled the interior of that doll’s head. I began to wonder what other things might be happening inside people’s heads, things that none of us on the outside can see.
The National Institute of Mental Illness (2018) ascertains that 1 in 4 adult Americans will suffer or have suffered with some form of mental illness. That’s 44.7 million people keeping an invisible weight inside their heads. Anxiety disorders will affect 31.1% of the population. And bipolar disorder will affect 4.4%. Contrary to popular belief, most people who suffer from a mental illness are functional in society; they hold down jobs, care for their families, are responsible citizens, and sit in a church service on Sunday.
Doctors and researchers have only the most basic understanding of the complexities that can lead to mental illness, but all agree that the neurotransmitters of the brain emit serotonin into the synapses—the spaces—between the transmitters. The less serotonin that’s emitted, the more severe the mental illness. Certain medications can help increase the amount of serotonin that’s making the leap from one transmitter to the other and not getting lost in the process.
And what about those of us who are Christians? Are we included in that 20% statistic of dealing with a mental illness? Yep. The insides of our heads can be as horrid as Grandma’s china doll. Unfortunately, we don’t always react well to the notion that the person sitting next to us in the pew is dealing with a mental or emotional problem. Back in Grandma’s day, people who had severe cases of mental illness were “put away,” a colloquialism for institutionalized. A misunderstanding of mental illness continues to exist.
But mental illness in its many forms is not a twenty-first century problem. Hippocrates, a Greek physician who lived around 400 BC, believed that all illnesses—physical or mental—were caused by an imbalance in the body’s organic processes. He strove to have mental illness understood as a genuine medical problem. Many theologians have hypothesized that King David, who reigned over Israel more than 3500 years ago, was afflicted with depression. In fact, Louba Ben-Noun published a thesis in History of Psychiatry (2004) which uses the Psalms to diagnose David on the DSM-IV scale used by mental health workers.
Six symptoms are needed for a diagnosis and, according to Ben-Noun, David possessed all six. A depressed mood is clearly revealed in Psalm 51:19, when David cried out that he has a “broken and depressed heart”. Psalm 48:9 further states, “I am feeble and depressed.” Significant weight loss may also be associated with severe depression, and in Psalm 109:24 David cries, “My knees are weak from fasting and my flesh failed of fatness. ” Ben-Noun finds further evidence in Psalm 109:7 which might indicate insomnia and Psalm 55:5 which might be an example of psychomotor agitation. Loss of energy is described in Psalm 31:11 and feelings of worthlessness—“a disgrace of man”—in Psalm 22:7.
Despite lack of an official diagnosis, it is clear that David had struggles. He needed to flee for his life from King Saul, lost his best friend Jonathan and his son Absalom, and had the stress of leading Israel. Even down and out, David never forsook God. Nor did God ever forsake him. But sometimes God was hard to see.
And David wasn’t the only Biblical character whose movable eyes sometimes had trouble seeing God. Writing for Crosswalk.com, McDaniel (2017) reminds us that Elijah was so discouraged he told God to take his life (1Kings 19:4), Jonah ran away from his circumstances and was “angry enough to die” (Jonah 4:9), and Moses was so discouraged he was ready to throw in his rod and staff and call it a day (Exodus 32:32).
While the examples of those who have suffered before us might make us feel less alone when battling mental issues, what we need are practical steps to keep us from falling into the “I’m a horrible Christian if I can’t get out of this funk” hole. Pastor Tim provided us with ways to keep moving forward even while our minds are pulled down with an ugly weight.
- Start the nod. It’s okay to be sad. The Christian walk’s not always a piece of cake. Ask for help from those sitting in the pews around you. I promise you they don’t have china heads, but real working ears.
- Do the Word Walk. The Bible is chock-full of those who felt depression and anxiety and turned to God, not Google.
- Wiggle just a little. “Pain is possible when joy is present,” Pastor Tim said. You may not be jumping up and down when it’s all you can do to get out of bed, but rejoice in what you can do. And realize happiness is only a temporary space in time but joy is found in the Lord (Nehemiah 8:10). Continue to put your hope in God.
I’m still not crazy about china-headed dolls, whose hollow heads and mechanical eyes remind me that we can all be broken. But when my Grandma died, her beloved doll came to live with me. I am all too aware of what the inside of her head looks like.
So I make her wear a hat.