A Review of
Blessed Union: Breaking the Silence About Mental Illness and Marriage
Sarah Griffith Lund
Reviewed by Christina Greenwald
As a therapist, I see firsthand how devastating mental illness and trauma can be on a person’s well-being, and how vital a supportive partnership can be to a person’s mental health recovery. As the spouse of a pastor, I see firsthand how little (and by little, I often mean zero) training pastors receive in mental illness and trauma, yet people with mental illnesses exist in church spaces week after week. Sarah Griffith Lund, pastor and disabilities advocate, aims to bridge this chasm through her writing and pastoral work. Her most recent book is Blessed Union: Breaking the Silence About Mental Illness and Marriage. With a pastoral voice and the direct experience of mental illness, she writes her own and others’ true stories of dealing with mental illness in marriage.
She writes, “Breaking the silence about mental illness and marriage is an ongoing act of discipleship. We tell these true stories about mental illness and marriage because in liberating them from silence we are healed from the stigma and shame that oppresses us. In sharing our true stories, we realize we are not the only ones. This, too, is a blessing” (127-128).
Stigma and lack of awareness around mental health issues are improving but still have a long way to go before full acceptance and understanding in our communities. Lund’s life work is breaking the silence around mental illness. It is important to be prepared, because mental illness can show up for anyone. What happens when mental illness shows up in marriage? In our churches? Are we prepared to talk about it and grapple with the realities of these challenges?
Lund uses the structure of traditional marriage vows: to love, comfort, honor, keep, and be faithful, as long as you both shall live, to explore different ways mental illness can affect marriages. She uses the particular context of faithful Christians who rest in a belief in a loving God to delve into the ways mental illness affects marriage, and how love, from each partner and from God, can help sustain people in (mental) sickness and health.
Oftentimes, Christians struggling with mental illness know they need to keep quiet about it because fellow Christians provide invalidating and harmful responses. Lund addresses this dynamic but points readers back toward a loving God: “Many people with mental illness have heard advice along the lines of, ‘you just need to have more faith’ or ‘just pray about it more.’… Faith may not set us free from mental illness. However, faith helps us seek after God’s presence in the midst of our experiences with mental illness” (29).
Faith can also serve as a resource for individuals who love people with mental illness. “Even though they are the same person you have always loved, it can be hard to recognize them. Looking through God’s eyes helps us to see past the label and the diagnosis” (35). Mental illness can change a lot about a person, but they are still the same person underneath all of that, and they will always be unconditionally loved by God.
The book tells the stories of people in marriage relationships grappling with various mental illnesses. Lund tells their stories while providing pastoral reflection – continually pointing readers back to the presence of an ever-loving, ever-faithful God. To be in a marriage that includes mental illness is far from easy, and often the happy days feel elusive. Lund shares how she has used therapy, her support system, and her faith to help sustain her even in the darkest times.
Lund navigates challenging topics such as depression, PTSD, bipolar disorder, psychotic episodes, even suicide. Each chapter begins with her personal reflection on living in a marriage with mental illness, shares a story of a couple she has interviewed where mental illness was present in one or both partners, and provides education about the mental illness(es) mentioned in the chapter. In order to truly be helpful to people living with mental illness, laypeople and churches need to have an understanding of how mental illness works, what different mental conditions present like, and be aware of resources to help. Blessed Union helps fill in these gaps.
Blessed Union is an important resource for anyone in a relationship that includes mental illness: it is a warm, encouraging way to say “You are not alone. Here’s what we can do.” It also serves well as a pastoral counseling resource. Many religious people rely on the pastor or faith leader as an initial source of support when things go wrong in their lives, including marital stressors. Blessed Union will give pastors a way to be prepared for some of the difficult issues that parishioners might bring up.
It would also be useful for church leadership. Just because a person earns a Master of Divinity or works for the church does not make them exempt from mental illness: many of Lund’s interviewees were seminary graduates and pastors. (Spoiler alert): In one heartbreaking story in this book, the church leaders fired a pastor after she suffered from postpartum depression following the birth of her child and even recommended the child be given up by the mother. It is judgmental gaps in understanding like this example that cause more harm than the mental illness itself ever did.
It is vital that we all increase our knowledge, compassion, and preparedness for when mental illness strikes someone we love or even ourselves. Blessed Union is a book that helps create understanding about mental illness and promotes justice for those suffering from mental health challenges.