I was assigned to read a lecture entitled "Recovery and the Conspiracy of Hope" by Dr. Patricia Deegan concerning the existence of hope in relation to mental illness. For many reasons, I found this to be incredibly beautiful and meaningful to read. Deegan gave this particular lecture at the Mental Health Services Conference of Australia and New Zealand back in 1996. When she uses the word "we", she is referencing those who work in the area of mental health:
"Both individually and collectively we have refused to succumb to the images of despair that so often are associated with mental illness. We are a conspiracy of hope and we are pressing back against the strong tide of oppression which for centuries has been the legacy of those who are labeled with mental illness. We are refusing to reduce human beings to illnesses. We recognize that within each one of us there is a person and that, as people, we share a common humanity with those who have been diagnosed with mental illness. We are here to witness that people who have been diagnosed with mental illness are not things, are not objects to be acted upon, are not animals or subhuman life forms. We share in the certainty that people labeled with mental illness are first and above all, human beings."
This makes me wonder what kind of rich theology can emerge from a christocentric interpretation of mental illness. I want to resist language that affirms something of inherent worth inside the individual. Rather, I'd like to move toward understanding all humanity, regardless of their endless differences including mental illness, as valuable only due to their reality as being chosen and elected in Jesus Christ. I can't imagine how this would inform the message of hope that is spoken and embodied when interacting with those who endure mental illness.
Moreover, I think there are a lot of eschatological questions that need to be asked when we reference language of hope in relation to mental illness. Is there a "true humanity" that must be found underneath this mental illness? What does trying to find that "true humanity" underneath the illness mean for how we view and treat those with mental illnesses just as they are? Eschatologically speaking, do we see them as less than human until the future resurrection when they will no longer suffer from such illness? Is their illness an intimate part of their humanity? Do we want to support an eschatology that leaves no room for mental illness to exist in the future resurrection? If we don't want the future resurrection to include mental illness, is it possible to prevent treating those with mental illness as subhuman in this present reality?
There is one thing I would like to note: so often in academic theological discourse, we talk endlessly about the marginalized and the oppressed. And I fully support this focus more than I can express here. But I rarely, if ever, hear speech about those who suffer from mental illness. They are truly some of the most forgotten and abused members of society. To hope for these particular human beings and somehow pursue solidarity with those who suffer from mental illness is scandalously neglected. This might be due to the fact that results are so hard to tangibly measure most times. Progress is unbearably slow. Sometimes so much so that hope seems futile. Moreover, what does progress mean for specific types of mental illness like schizophrenia? Yet the places where progress seems impossible to measure are the exact places where hope must be born. These are the places for which theological speech should be directed. The psychiatric hospital is one of the main spaces for which we should be ordering our speech and actions after the Gospel of Jesus Christ. These are the places where the light of the resurrection must shine into the darkness. These are precisely the places where Jesus Christ meets us.