Saint Ignatius College Geelong

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    Faith Matters - Demons

    Article by Mr Brendan Nicholls

    Faith Matters – Demons

    At the College this week we have been exploring ways in which we can remove the stigma that still surrounds mental health illnesses. We have reflected upon how we all have a role to play in ensuring that all are cared for and supported. The simple question “R U OK?”, is a catch phrase and ice breaker that seeks to open up a conversation or encourage people that it’s ok to not be travelling well and that reaching out is a sign of strength. This year the week has been particularly confronting personally due to the tragic suicide of a member of my extended family.

    We all suffer the effects of mental health illness and suicide. Unfortunately, my experience is not unique. In society there is sense of failure or shame for those who “can’t cope”. Life is difficult and we are impacted by the things occurring around us or to us we suffer. Throughout our lives we move up and down a mental health continuum. There are times when our mental health is very good. Times when we wrestle with mental health illness and for almost half of us we will, for a period of time, experience a mental health illness. For some hope disappears and in their pain they cannot see any way out. Suicide is the leading cause of death among young Australians. Annually “350 young people aged 15–24 take their own lives every year – more than die on the roads. For every youth suicide, there are 100 to 200 more attempts”.

    Mental health illnesses are common and a conversation is needed if we are to improve the situation. For young people the effects of social, physical and family changes during adolescence can make the movement up and down the mental health continuum rapid and confusing. This is ‘normal’ and needs to be understood. The report into the Mental Health of Children and Adolescents (2015) is unsettling to read. The number of young people experiencing mental health illness at the serious or chronic end of the continuum, engaging in self harm and suicide has increased since the last report. Although many who experienced mental health problems sought help, a significant percentage were unable to get the support or services required or did not reach out.

    In our Church there is still much to be done in this area. Pastoral care is the lived aspect of Jesus’ Gospel ministry and ‘we’ do it very well. There are numerous Catholic organisations that support people in ways that help lessen the pressures of life and others that support people and families to develop supportive relationships and networks. At the College our staff are supportive and compassionate. Our wellbeing team, year level coordinators and home room teachers are highly experienced and trained the professionals who work as a team to identify, refer and support students in this area.

    In our Church though there is much theological work yet to be done in regard to the healing miracles of those possessed by ‘demons’. There are numerous accounts in the Gospels of Jesus healing people with mental illness. Sadly, these miracles have not yet been afforded the scholarly attention of other healing miracles. It is easy to believe that Jesus healed the lepers, the blind and those with physical afflictions. But it’s less common for us to understand or believe what occurred when Jesus healed the ‘possessed’.  In reality the accounts are quite simple. Although we are still exploring the mind and quantifying what causes mental illness and how the brain in fact functions we can apply a modern understanding on the scriptural text.

    In Jesus’ time physical and mental illness were not understood. Jesus knews that he had the power to heal and was compassionate to all who suffered or were excluded from society. In Jesus’ time demons were thought to be the cause of mental illness. In a way this imagery is in fact quite helpful. Demons are dark and powerful spirits that act upon people. Demons cause misery and are very hard to get rid of. Demons are not of God, they torment the person, causing pain and suffering for the person afflicted.

    The imagery of the word demon is actually an excellent illustration of what a mental health illness is. Unpacking this term helps the reader understand what actually occurred in the Gospel. Jesus, the Son of God, was a great healer. He felt a deep compassion for those who suffered. He healed physical disabilities and illness. He healed many who had mental health illnesses. For Jesus physical and mental illness was the same. Suffering is suffering and he actively encountered these people in his time and healed them.

    In contemplating the Gospel accounts in a modern way we observe that for Jesus there was no stigma. He did not cure only physical illness. He understood the darkness and pain that mental health illnesses had on the young and old. He showed through his actions that there was a better way. We can learn from him and act as he did with the abilities we have.

    Our Church and society generally have lived the Gospel message well but have failed to truly act out his teaching in this area. The lack of scholarly work on the healing miracles regarding mental health illnesses is indicative of the stigma that silently informs a view that this area is too hard to understand. For some an archaic simplistic literal interpretation of the accounts inform their view of those who suffer. At Saint Ignatius College we seek to educate our students that the text is not only the inspired Word of God but a complex text that needs to be understood, considered deeply and be applied to modern contexts. It may well be that some of our students will enter into Biblical Studies and shed more light upon how these accounts may inform our community and our Church.

    Society is still developing language and behaviours that will lead to change in the way people view mental health illness and how we support those who suffer. Our efforts as a community this week make use of a number secular resources. The question R U OK? and wearing a splash of yellow are small actions that can help us build a more compassionate and supportive community. As a community of faith we can also pray for healing for those who suffer and for the courage to encounter the afflicted. Importantly we can pray for the souls of those who were unable to find peace in this life. We can pray that they rest eternally in the tender embrace of God and may one day be held also by those who so desperately wish they could today. As a community we can make a difference.

    Yours in Jesus Christ, our healer,
    Brendan Nicholls Liturgy Coordinator


    If you or anyone you know needs help:
    •    Lifeline on 13 11 14
    •    Kids Helpline on 1800 551 800
    •    MensLine Australia on 1300 789 978
    •    Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467
    •    Beyond Blue on 1300 22 46 36
    •    Headspace on 1800 650 890
    •    ReachOut at au.reachout.com

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