I have been trying to figure out a way to talk about and construct a theology of spirituality for those of us that are mentally ill and for their loved ones. It seems that we experience God’s absence, pain, and suffering much more than we experience the glory of God, the goodness of God, the holiness of God. And in my attempts, I’ve hit numerous roadblocks. Mostly, the issue has come from the fact that most theologies that deal with illness or pain or suffering talk about healing; however, for the mentally ill, there is probably not healing available (this is not to say that God couldn’t heal, just that it does not seem to happen, which I think has a good reason which I will talk about in a later post). So, what kind of spirituality is available for those of us who are stuck in a situation where pain and suffering is the norm, although we do look for hope in places that most people would see none.

My immediate thought was that black theology could be a fantastic resource for understanding what it is to live in pain and suffering while also looking to God for a greater hope. I also thought this would be good due to the fact that there is ongoing research into the way in which stigma and racial prejudice is quite similar (see also this article about the effects of stigma on access to certain services and the like).. However, in saying that, we need to make a very large, very necessary caveat. Being a person of color and being a white mentally ill person are very different. I, as a white guy, can hide my mental illness. No one has to know that I am mentally ill unless I tell them. This is not the case for almost all black people in the US (as well as other people of color). And, the prejudice that comes with being a person of color actually can lead to a greater negative impact on a person’s mental health, whether this prejudice is simply perceived or actual (and, with the recent spat of videos and news stories of young black folk being attacked and dying at the hands of police, it is hard to argue that it is simply perception). This is why Veronica Womack, in Time Magazine, wrote about the need for Black Lives Matter to also include a commitment to the mental health and treatment of mental illness in the black community. So, I don’t want to be accused of saying that people of color and the mentally ill suffer the same prejudice: they don’t. However, there is prejudice associated with both  and it is felt in both communities. The only problem is that people of color can’t hide what people are actually prejudice about: their skin color.



There are a few major reasons why I turn to black theology as the beginning of a spirituality for people with mental illness. I draw these ideas from the great purveyor of black theologyJames Cone. Cone has written a number of great books, but I am drawing primarily from A Black Theology of Liberation and God of the Oppressed. In these works, Cone has two real contributions that I want to focus on. The first is that theology, meaning all thinking on God and all speech about God, must arise out ​of a community or place of oppression. As I mentioned above and as research bears out, both people of color and the mentally ill experience an amount of stigma, prejudice, and oppression just by the fact of being who they are, although that directed at people of color is definitely of a harsher nature than that of the mentally ill. But, oppression is key to both communities.

I’d like to push that idea of oppression, though, to talk of active suffering. The kind of suffering experienced by those with mental illness and people of color is not chosen but placed upon them from somewhere else. This suffering must be dealt with in a way so that both people of color and the mentally ill actively suffer. They cling to a hope that is out there but are actively suffering in that they embrace and deal with the suffering. They must actively deal with it or it will eat them alive. And, this suffering cannot be escaped: people of color cannot escape suffering due to the color of their skin and the mentally ill cannot escape because suffering is internal, an illness that resides in the brain. 

The second place that I believe black theology has a really strong motif for a theology of spirituality for the mentally ill is in the person of Jesus and the Christology developed from there. Black theology sees Jesus as “black.” Now, this does not mean that Jesus’ skin was black or that Jesus was from Africa (although it is important to remember from the biblical witness that Jesus spent some formative years in Africa in the country of Egypt). Saying that Jesus is black means saying that Jesus is born into a place of oppression (he’s born in a stable), he lives a life of the oppressed, and is ultimately put to death through suffering at the hands of his oppressors. This is the black story for black theologians like Cone: black people are taken from their African home and are then born into slavery and oppression in the US, live under the eye of the oppressor, and then ultimately are killed through either their oppressive work or the apparatus of the state. In total, they live a life that is marked with suffering. Suffering is inherent to what it means for Jesus to be human and for people of color to be.

I’d like to go a step further, though, and expand on black theology. Not only are people of color oppressed in most of Western civilization, but they are forsaken. They have been actively forgotten and placed aside. In a similar manner, Jesus is the forsaken, crying out on the cross, “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?” Jesus is the Son of God forsaken by God, abandoned by the Father in his time of most need. This is not only a feeling that people of color have, but is also a feeling that quite strong in the life of the mentally ill. In the throes of psychosis or depression or anxiety or mania, there is nothing to feel but the absence of God at times. God has forsaken us as we hang on our crosses. Now, this is not the kind of suffering people of color have endured, but is a deep suffering that holds onto being abandoned by the One who is not supposed to abandon.



But there is hope. Hope always exists for black theology. We find it in the famous slave spiritual “Nobody Knows the Trouble I See” (here’s Louis Armstrong’s rendition). Here are the lyrics:

Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen
Nobody knows but Jesus
Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen
Glory Hallelujah

Sometimes I’m up and sometimes I’m down
Yes lord, you know sometimes I’m almost to the ground
O yes, Lord, still

Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen
Nobody knows but Jesus
Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen
Glory Hallelujah

You got here before I do
O yes Lord, don’t forget to tell all my friends I’m coming too

O yes Lord, still
Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen
Nobody knows but Jesus
Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen
Glory Hallelujah

As we see/hear in this song, even though the songwriter is sometimes up and sometimes down, sometimes almost to the ground (sound like my bipolar) the author holds hope. The hope comes in the fact that Jesus, the One forsaken by God, has come through it. Jesus may have died on the cross on that Friday, but he comes out of that grave on Sunday. And that hope, the hope that even when one encounters the forsakenness and suffering that makes you almost yearn from death, that Jesus is not only there but Jesus will walk through it with you, that hope sustains you when you are a slave working in the field, when you are a sharecropper who owes the man money, when you are spat at because you only speak Spanish (because that is all your parents had taught you), when you are in the throes of depression and your mind keeps repeating “Kill yourself”, when you are in the middle of an anxiety attack that will not let go and you know that this time your heart will have to stop. All of these are places that black theology teaches us Jesus walks because Jesus is with the suffering, the forsaken, the oppressed. Jesus stands with these people in these places when no one else will and when no else can. Jesus has been there and we turn to Jesus in these darkest of places because he has not only been there, but he stays there to walk with us, pick us up, carry us, get us to the next spot. 

And, lest one think that I am making too much of the connection between the suffering of people of color and the suffering that takes place in mental illness, I would draw your attention to the newest book by Monica A. ColemanBipolar Faith: A Black Woman’s Journey with Depression and Faith. While I will more fully review it at a later date, in Bipolar Faith Coleman draws this parallels while developing her own account of what it means to lead a spiritual life while being mentally ill….and black….and a woman. All of these work together in her life, as they should, to bring about a beautiful reliance upon God and an active spirituality that seeks the betterment of all through the lifting up of the oppressed, the forsaken, the suffering.