Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Book Review: 'A Gentle Touch: Christians and Mental Illness' by John Ting

This book seeks to address the common issues surrounding mental illness from the perspective of a Christian pastor. The 5 areas discussed are psychosis, mood disorders, anxiety disorders, addictions, and self-care.

In his introductory chapter, John lays out his assumption of human being and his approach to healing/remedy for mental illness. Humans are regarded as multi-dimensional being. Our composition is not simply physical but also emotional, mental, psychological, social and spiritual. These dimensions are mutually affecting one another. For this reason, John advocates a holistic approach for healing that combines psychiatry, psychotherapy, pastoral and communal care. By including the spiritual dimension in his framework, John is caution that there should not be any imposition of one’s Christian faith to the client. Following this, John sets the dynamic between prayers and medicine on the understanding that “God is the source of healing.” Therefore those who are struggling with mental illness should continue to prayer while at the same time seek after medical/psychological treatment. This is a holistic framework.

The book’s second chapter deals with the discerning between demon possession and schizophrenia. The suggestion he gives is to approach such cases with an open mind, without excluding either possibilities. On one hand, symptoms of being possessed may be the result of delusional behaviour. On the other hand, behavioural disorder may be due to possession. Sometimes, it could be a combination of both. John helpfully suggests that a way to diagnose which is which is by investigating the client’s history, whether did the person participate in demonic or occult activity in the past. “If things occult and temple are absent but emotional traumas, failures and disappointments in life have occurred, the more likely the disorders are due to mental illness.”

The third chapter on mood disorder highlights the legitimacy for Christians to take antidepressant. Seeking therapy and medical course does not make a Christian less dependent on God as all healing comes from Him. John points out that mood disorder such as depression is caused by our body’s dysfunction, very much like other physical illnesses. Therefore medicine can regulate the biochemical balance in the body. In some cases, those with clinical depression may have to depend on antidepressant their whole life. To John, “God may choose to heal miraculously in answer to faith and prayer,” and if He so desire, “He also heals through medication and therapy.”

In the same chapter, John shares about his own journey of going through clinical depression. For a long period of time during the depression, he felt unproductive and procrastinated a lot. Due to the stress that weighing him down, at one point he considered suicide. It was through medication and an extended time of spiritual exercises such as prayer, reflection, and fasting that he managed to be healed from it.

The next chapter deals with anxiety disorder. John notes that “anxiety has a large cognitive component.” As such, the spiritual resources in Christianity such as God’s sovereignty and faithfulness in providing, caring, and loving His children can help to deal with anxiety. Yet, that also depends on whether is the person’s anxiety caused by “cognitive, voluntary component” or “emotional, involuntary component.” If it is the latter, then medication and therapy may be needed before the spiritual guidance is given. For this reason, counsellors and pastors need “wisdom and sensitivity to discern whether the presence of crisis, anxiety and stress mean it is not an appropriate time to inculcate a biblical worldview or it is an opportunity to learn experientially God’s sovereignty and faithfulness.”

Chapter five addresses the issue of addiction. John distinguishes 2 types of addiction. The first type is addiction is with objects that are sinful such as obsession with pornography and drug abuse. These by themselves are “intrinsically sinful.” The second type is addiction with objects that are not sinful such as alcohol, computer games and Facebook. We can consume or use them in moderation. In any case, the starting point to break an addiction is by confession and repentance. It is only through the power of Christ that one can be fully rehabilitated from these vices. I think John could discuss more on diagnosing the causes for addiction, which will help to pinpoint the cause of it in order to begin the healing process from there.

The last chapter is dedicated to discuss self-care as a way to avoid burnout. John differentiates burnout from stress where the former is characterised by disengagement and lethargic while the latter is over-engagement and anxiety disorder. Steps of prevention are recommended as burnout is often unnoticeable when it happens. These steps are self-education, participate in support group, know our own limits, accept our feelings, and confide in others. The last of them is the best defence against burnout.

This book is not only instructional but biographical. Besides sharing his thoughts and experience, John has included the personal story of others who have suffered from mental illness. I find this combination of theory and stories enhances my understanding of the issues on and remedy for mental illness with more vividness. Whether we agree with him or not in his diagnosis and suggestion, we need to listen to his exhortation to remove the stigma of mental illness in the church. “There are clinically depressed brothers and sisters in our churches who are active in some form of ministry. Most are afraid to let others know about it for fear of rejection and being judged untrusting and lacking in faith when this is probably not  so.” It would be very unfortunate if Christians with mental illness do not find it safe even in their church to talk about these matters. Thanks to John for this short yet urgent reminder.

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