Like many people, I know first-hand that 1 in 5 people experience mental illness in their lifetimes, and 1 in 25 live with serious mental illness. I have had helpful and encouraging conversations with people, but I’m sorry to say that few of them have been at church. As wonderful as the body of Christ can be, there seems to be discomfort with discussing mental health at church. In our age of information, knowledge and sophistication, stigmas within the church, regarding this common human experience, exist. For some people, mental illness is the biggest problem in their lives, yet the church hasn’t offered hope, help or support.
Mental illness effects so many of us as we personally experience it, or live with family and friends who suffer from it. But we don’t talk about it. A stigma is defined as “a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person.” Some stigmas have quietly faded away over time as cultures have become more understanding of their physical causes.
I experienced this as a child of the end of the baby boomer generation. My parents’ generation wasn’t quite sure about left-handedness, but I was still allowed to write with my left hand as a child. I have peers who were in less-accepting environments and were still forced to use their right hands. Forcing handedness is practically unheard of today. It was a stigma then, but isn’t now. The stigma around mental illness remains, even in a world where physiological causes are acknowledged.
Mental illness is still little-understood by people who aren’t forced to understand it. That’s a generalization, but I think it’s warranted, for the most part. My first degree is in education, and my second and third are in ministry. I work with people, more than 25, in fact. Since about 1 in 25 people suffer from serious mental illness, that statistically makes it likely that I will come in contact with people who struggle with mental illness. No one told me I would, even though I certainly would. I have.
The stigma around mental illness remains, even in a world where physiological causes are acknowledged.
Church leadership that would readily visit someone who was sick in the hospital with a physical illness never offered to visit a family member who had been hospitalized for psychiatric needs. Another friend was blamed for her own deep depression. She was asked whom she hadn’t forgiven? What sin was hidden that caused this? She was shamed for taking medication when absolutely every other avenue had been tried and exhausted as ineffective. When prayer counseling brought little psychiatric change, she was told it was probably because she hadn’t done her part. The church ministers were adding to her angst with the best of intentions, but heaping failure on hurt just isn’t Jesus’ style.
It’s important to distinguish situational or seasonal depression or anxiety from severe, hospitalization-requiring illnesses that incapacitate and profoundly effect people’s lives and those around them. Most of us know people who have wrestled with depression, and many of us have personally dealt with the debilitating effects of spiritual and emotional “heaviness.” It’s important to follow the Holy Spirit’s lead in ministry to people who suffer in this way. It’s important to never blame, shame or judge.
David experienced situational depression, and knew how to press through it. Psalms 73:26 says, “My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” In His weakness, he called on his faith and comforted himself with his trust in God. David was severely depressed and was anxious many times. Psalms chronicle his emotional struggles. He learned to praise God to lift this heaviness. Isaiah 61:3 tells us that we can exchange, “a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.”
David was severely depressed and was anxious many times. Psalms chronicle his emotional struggles.
Sometimes people who are suffering psychiatrically can be hard to relate to, or are noncompliant for various reasons. Their emotions can be intimidating or frustrating because they sometimes defy logic. This doesn't mean we should avoid working with them. Amazing victories can and do happen. At the very least, our attentions and love may keep people from self-isolation, which can compound the problem. God chooses for us to minister each other, and miracles do happen. Praise God! When the situation seems out of our comfort zone, however, we need to know the resources available in order to seek more professional help.
I have respect for some people’s lifelong, desperate efforts to be well. These are people who have suffered long and righteously with illness that grounds them cyclically and without warning, despite pleas and petitions. Generational curses, physical disease and injury, and trauma sometimes require long-term ministry and prayer. It’s all too complex to address beyond the admission that such illnesses are real and should receive their due respect. Their sufferers should also receive their due compassion.
I have never suffered like my loved ones who have plunged to the depths of despair so that hope is decimated. After years of walking alongside family and friends who fall into despair like some of us trip on a patch of ice, I have decided that what they desperately need is acceptance and lovingkindness, patience and honor, not judgement. God knows their suffering and His love for them is immeasurable and unconditional. Ours should seek to emulate His.
The church is called to “Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give.” (Matthew 10:8) We believe that God can, and does, heal. Ecclesiastes 3:3 says there is “a time to heal.” What is also clear is that healing doesn’t always happen in our timing. When healing doesn’t happen immediately, we need to be patient and “pray without ceasing.” (I Thessalonians 5:17) While we pray, we need to gently speak hope and life to those who continue to suffer.
Healing doesn’t always happen in our timing.
We are also called to “be strong and courageous.” (Joshua 1:9) This is important when applied to the issue of facing and acknowledging mental health issues. We can’t share our burdens if we can’t honestly admit them. Many of us are afraid of what people “might think,” regarding family needs, or that we will be blamed or judged for the pain of members of our families.
I admit this has happened to me. I was blamed for the mental illness of a family member. When I think back, it was because my accuser “knew not what he did.” Jesus spoke these words in seeking God’s forgiveness for his persecutors (see Luke 23:24). Even then, the mental illness stigma contributed to this man's plain ignorance.
If we were more open about this subject, ignorance would be reduced significantly. When we can exchange our judgement and ignorance for compassion and our discomfort for empathy and understanding, then we can truly minister to one another. Then we can provide a safe place to ask for prayer and help. It’s sad to see when people are disrespectful to people who are truly mentally ill. People who are disrespectful need prayer as much as the people to whom they show disrespect.
It's sad when the only help available, in the world at large, leaves God out of the healing process. The church should be the ultimate place for healing. Its doors should not be barred to those who need it most. The people within the church's doors should be able to recognize and validate the need for help when mental illness is suspected. We need to be wise and ask for grace and knowledge to be there for those who need our help in this way. Minimization of symptoms and emotions have led to tragedies in a culture where self-harm is shockingly common and even glorified in the most evil venues. There is a battle for the affirmation of life and purpose. The church's message is hope and destiny. This is one area where we can arise and help change lives for Jesus.
A recent conversation with a sister in Christ reminded me how weary we can become when we care for family members who can’t care fully for themselves when they are ill. Mental illness can be chronic. It takes someone gifted with mercy and grace to reach out and offer acceptance and love. Many more of us need to be Jesus for people by being willing to roll up our sleeves to minister in a home where so much hurt has been present for so long.
So much more could be done in a church culture which honors those who come forward in vulnerability to receive support, encouragement, acceptance and prayer.
The truth is that mental illness makes us uncomfortable. It's unpredictable, sometimes unresponsive, sometimes long-standing, sometimes mean, and always hard to understand. Each of us should be ready, willing and courageous enough to face the very hard reality of mental illness. The enemy’s ground in this area needs to be taken by Christ’s church.
We should be willing to ask questions and should be even more willing to give answers when we are asked. We should never, never sweep it under the sanctuary carpet and pretend it’s not there. That’s what the enemy would want. In Matthew 11:28-30, Jesus says,
“Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.”