The Gospel in a Psych Ward

My first (known) experience with mental illness came during my psych rotation of nursing school. In that rotation 20 of us — innocent, young, female students, unaware of some of the tragedies and vices of mental illness — were plopped into a veterans psych hospital.

We were plopped there having practiced “therapeutic communication” for a total of one week. We were dumped there knowing the phrases “Tell me more about how you feel” or “What was that like for you?” or “What did you feel like after that happened?”. We were told never to contradict.

We were told to ‘be safe’.

The first person I met looked at me and introduced himself as Jesus Christ. “Oh no you’re not” I said! My instructor looked at me in horror, and pulled me aside. “You’re not supposed to contradict!” She said with strength and warning in her tone. “But he’s NOT Jesus Christ!” I said to her indignantly. “That’s ridiculous!” She sighed. “We’ll talk later….”

During that semester the world as I knew it was destroyed. From depression to suicide to abuse to transvestites to domestic violence to teen drug use to schizophrenia it changed. My world was shaken to the core and I didn’t know what to do.

So I came down with a rash. That seemed the only way to cope. Hives took me to the emergency room where I was safely treated for a ‘physical symptom’. I could escape the psychological symptoms for a time through Benadryl and cleaning my drawers.

But sooner or later I had to return.

This was the beginning of realizing that my faith, the gospel, the truth of the ‘I Am who I Am’ is nothing if it can’t penetrate the psych ward. If my faith wasn’t strong enough for this….I didn’t want anything to do with it. If my Jesus was not somehow present in all of this – no. I didn’t want Him.

There had to be a light that could shine bright enough, reach deep enough, be strong enough. A light that could shine into troubled hearts and tortured minds, go into the living hell of some of these patients.

If there was redemption, a redemptive process, I had to know it was strong enough for this.

Red from scratching the raised bumps of hives, I sat on my bed and frantically looked for a gospel story that could shed some light, offer a hope to the world that I was confronting. And I found it in the story of Legion.

20130103-083146.jpgJesus is in the Galilee walking with his disciples and comes across a man who is tortured in body, mind, and soul. The man lives in tombs, has the strength to tear chains off his body, and cuts himself with stones. If there is hell on earth, he was living it. But in all of this, he recognizes who Jesus is and falls on his knees. When Jesus asks the man his name, he responds: “Legion, because there are many of us”. And Jesus takes this tortured soul, sets it free, sends this legion of demons into a herd of pigs that run into the lake and drown.

Jesus doesn’t turn away, he enters into this pain and frees the man.

In no way am I suggesting that mental illness is demon possession. But I am suggesting that the pain and torture described in this story are what many people with mental illness feel. They are in their own living hell.

Since that time I have had many encounters with mental illness. I’ve walked beside people into emergency rooms and counselors offices; I’ve sat with people as they’ve described their manic thoughts and desire to end it all, as they’ve tried to deal with the hurt of a mind that has betrayed them. I’ve been present with the family members of those who have chosen suicide.

I have witnessed redemption through proper medication and counsel, holy moments of healing during crisis, a God whose presence can fill the psych ward or the therapists office.

But it was the story of Legion that first gave me hope – that my gospel can and does belong in a psych ward. That healing and ‘therapeutic’ communication can come as balms of holy oil to the one who suffers. That this gospel, this good news that I love, is strong enough to reach into tortured souls and living hell.

When the Lights Go Out and Jesus Isn’t Enough

Lightbulb quote

I was tucking him in tight, sheets pulled up to his chin, blanket over the sheet, pillow fluffed. His attic bedroom was a chilly room and his toddler body was curled up tight.

I had read.  We had done the “Great green room” and  “a telephone and a red balloon and a picture of a cow jumping over the moon,” several times.

I had sung.

I had prayed.

Time to go. Time to turn out the light and go downstairs where four other kids waited for bedtime tea and talk.

“Mommy, I scawwed.”

“Jonathan you don’t need to be scared. The boys are right next door. I’m right downstairs.”

“Mommy, I still scawwed.”

“Jonathan, Jesus will be with you.”

“I hate Jesus.”


This was not the way this bedtime scenario was supposed to go. My words were supposed to comfort. These were the words of a good Christian mama – Or were they?

I suddenly saw things from this tow-headed toddler’s perspective.

The light was out, mom was leaving, and Jesus wasn’t enough.

Each night I read. I sang. I prayed. And then I told him Jesus would be with him, shut off all the lights and left him alone in a cold room. In his mind, left alone in the dark with Jesus, he was cold and scared. Jesus was proving a poor bedfellow.

No wonder at that moment he hated Jesus.

It was this pivotal night that turned around our bedtime routine. I found a night-light. I tucked him in tight. I told him we were right downstairs. I prayed with him. I shut off the light and, with night-light glowing, I stayed until I saw his eyes close. I no longer left him in the dark with a cold-hearted “Jesus is with you.

I have many parenting stories, many tales of my inept parenting and resilient kids, but this is one of my favorites.

For it served as a good reminder – a reminder that Jesus needs skin and we are that skin, to our children and to others. A reminder that there have been times when I have translated the original bedtime routine to others. I have in essence patted them on the back, made appropriate noises and told them Jesus would be with them. And I imagine them saying to my back as I walked away, so busy with other things, “I hate Jesus” for what they needed was me being His hands and His feet, me offering bread and tea, comfort and love, a heart of compassion, but most of all — being present and offering a night-light.

The light is out in their lives and Jesus isn’t enough.

And isn’t this why there was an Incarnation to begin with? Because the lights were out, and it was cold and dark. We lay in our beds curled up, far from God. And God knew we needed Him with skin on.

Every year at Advent we set aside time to remember the coming of God incarnate. Remember that everything changed when this baby was born. Remember that people still need to see the mystery of God incarnate lived and offered — a night-light and presence to replace the dark, fear, and cold by offering light, safety, and warmth.

This Advent season, may we be a people who sit for awhile, offering ourselves and our full presence, who bring a night-light so people can see Jesus.

*From the beloved children’s book Goodnight Moon.

This post is linked up with The Parent ‘Hood hosted by Kelly at Love Well blog.