I have not personally suffered from mental illness, but I have loved ones who have. It is hard to understand their pain. In the face of their struggle, I have no words. And the church hasn’t always responded well to mentally ill people. Sometimes this is due to a mistrust of psychology for its secular underpinning. Other times, profound emotional struggle is seen as evidence for a lack of faith. The result has been a good deal of isolation of and insensitivity toward the mentally-ill. Come Lord Jesus.
Kathryn Greene-McCreight wrote Darkness is My Only Companion to offer a Christian response to mental illness, especially bipolar, the Illness she herself struggles with. Greene-McCreight is associate chaplain at Yale, a priest and theological writer. Her book is part memoir, part theology and part practical advice for people personally facing mental illness or clergy offering support to those navigating these waters. This second edition has a new forward from Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and has been revised and expanded to reflect more recent treatment and statistics than the 2005 edition, and to answer questions readers had of the original edition.
Greene-McCrieght unfolds this book in three parts. Part one is the most personal. She discusses her own journey through depression, hyper-mania, suicidal thoughts, hospitalizations and treatment. She shares the scriptures, poems, prayers hymns that carried her through the most difficult parts of her journey and her interactions with psychiatrists who regarded her faith and commitment to praying the daily office with suspicion. She is able to speak of the things she learned from bipolar and treatment (i.e. vulnerability, dependence, humility); yet she doesn’t give trite reasons about why this happened to her.
Part two answers theological questions. The experience of depression debilitates those who suffer, affecting personality, memory, feelings, and brain function. Gtreene-McCreight points away from personal feelings, emotions and experience as the final arbitrator of spiritual truth to God’s own objective work through Jesus Christ:
I am simply questioning the religious significance of feelings, especially for the Christian religion, in the economy of salvation. Our salvation is something Jesus wrought on the cross, not in the interiority of our personality. When our personality frays under the strain of mental illness, this does not mean that God regards our soul any differently from when we are mentally ill. (91)
Also in this section, she discusses the relationship between the mind, the brain and the soul, the relationship (and difference) between depression and ‘the dark night of the soul,’ and the value of prayer for the mentally ill.
Part three explores practical concerns. There is a chapter devoted to how clergy, family and friends can help someone suffering from mental illness. And a chapter giving guidance for a person of faith on how to choose therapy. She has her original conclusion, a new afterward that describes the things she’s learned since the first edition, and answers questions and criticisms. Three appendices describe ‘why and how’ she uses Scripture, ‘a brief checklist of symptoms and resources’ and questions for group discussion.
It is overstating things to say that part one is personal, part two theological and part three practical. Throughout this book, Greene-McCreight opens up her journey, theologizes and shares practical insights. Because this book is so rooted in her own experience, it is perhaps most applicable to those who struggle with depression or bipolar, though most of her insights apply to mental illness in general as well. She speaks compassionately about those who have been debilitated by mental illness or succumb to suicide. This is a deeply thoughtful book. Practical theology at its best.
I have nothing but compassion and heartache for loved ones who have been afflicted with bipolar. I appreciate Greene-McCreight’s advice on how to walk alongside those who suffer (and when to enlist more help!). I think this should be required reading for anyone doing pastoral work. I give this four stars.
Note: I received this book from Brazos Press in exchange for my honest review.