Despite awareness campaigns in almost every area of our lives, mental illness still tends to be a rather taboo topic in the church.
I’m not quite sure why this is, to be honest. It’s not like Christians don’t suffer from mental illness (look at ANY of the prophets. You think they weren’t depressed?) But somehow I think that a lot of Christians have this unconscious belief that if you’re a good enough Christian you’ll never suffer from mental illness.
I think that’s ridiculous. We don’t say “if you’re a good enough Christian you’ll never get sick,” even though many places in the Bible say that God will heal us. So why are we so terrified to acknowledge that we, as Christians can suffer from mental illness?
I’m lucky to go to a church that is extremely open about this topic, and it’s one of the first that I’ve ever experienced. We have people sharing stories about how God has pulled them out of depression, or how God is currently with them through their anxiety. And you know what? Our church really has the feeling of a healing place.
Last Sunday I was reminiscing on this and I thought “Why don’t more churches have an open policy about mental illness?” We believe that God is the ultimate healer, and I truly believe that if more churches are willing to speak up about this struggle we could see more healing happen among our congregations.
Five things in particular came to mind as to what the church can do to help those in its congregation with mental illness. This is a really delicate topic, but it’s one we need to face.
1. Understand that sometimes what I really need is to take care of myself.
One of the biggest things that I think often the church misunderstands when it comes to mental health is that sometimes stepping back from everything is what we need most. That doesn’t mean stop coming to church or stop helping out, but there needs to be an understanding that if a member of the church is depressed, anxious, or going through any sort of mental health issue they are allowed and encouraged to devote the majority of their energy to caring for their mental health.
From my experience, when I have stepped back from church-related duties it’s been greeted with mixed responses. The church that I am at right now has been more than understanding–I had individuals text me encouragement without me even having to tell them that I was going through something. However, I’ve also experienced being told that experiencing a depressive episode is entirely a faith issue, and that it’s my responsibility to fix it because the church needs its members to all pitch in and help.
Let me be very clear: this is not a Biblical perspective. Nowhere in the Bible can I find a verse that says that we’re supposed to be on our A-game all of the time. Yes, in everything we do praise God, and in everything we do serve him. But we are beings who live through seasons, and sometimes you may find yourself in a season where you just need to take care of yourself and you do not have the emotional or psychological resources to continue at the pace you have been going. And that’s OK. Even Jesus took time off to go pray.
Church: Please understand that when we say we can’t handle it, we can’t handle it. If there is something in our life that is taking up too much of our energy like an unhealthy addiction, for instance, or poor lifestyle choices, sure. Let’s talk about it. But if I come to you saying “I’m experiencing panic attacks and I need time to just deal with that,” please understand that self-care is a season that God can call us to.
2. Allow for quiet, unstructured community
Some of the best medicine for mental health issues is supportive community. It’s a protective factor for almost everything. Many of my most renewing, refreshing times were in completely unstructured community time at my church. The nights where we all show up with just a deck of cards or a game and a guitar and just sit around for hours in fellowship.
I find that often the church complains that it has a hard time fostering community that is refreshing and rejuvenating for its members but then fails to actually present any community-building opportunities. Small groups aren’t enough–that’s too structured. You need time where you can really just let go and be with each other–no expectations.
Church: Please give us opportunities where we can just come as we are and be loved by the family of God. Struggling with a mental illness is one of the loneliest things in the entire world, and sometimes feeling accepted and loved by others is the breath of fresh air we need to get through the day. Amazing retreats and huge, highly structured events aren’t necessary–simple will do quite well.
3. Foster an atmosphere of openness concerning mental health issues
I will NEVER understand why the church doesn’t talk about mental health more. I’m sorry, I just don’t get it. My church here in Ottawa is amazing for this, though, which is one of the reasons, I believe, it has succeeded in being a church that is known for its family, community feel. When people are comfortable enough to share stories about mental health issues they’ve dealt with, you’re family.
There’s nothing worse than being met with horrified shock when you reveal that you’re struggling with something psychologically. We need to make churches a place where people feel welcomed to talk about their mental health. The church is supposed to look after the whole person, and our minds and psyches are such a huge part of that–let’s be open to talking about it! Let’s share struggles, rejoice in victories, and grieve with each other during our relapses. But let’s do it together, and let’s do it with gentleness and love.
4. Actually take time to research mental health issues
I think that a lot of the fear surrounding mental health issues is a lack of knowledge. For example, I’ve heard way too many times by Christians, especially very conservative ones, that depression is a made-up illness. They claim that it’s a choice to be depressed, so therefore depression is a sin and not a disease. Which is ridiculous. I’m sorry, it just is. However, I think that the issue comes from these people not understanding that you can claim that something is both a spiritual and a physical/psychological battle rather than actually wanting to discredit what someone is feeling. In my mind, this is an issue with a lack of education, not a lack of compassion or the presence of malicious intent.
I’m not just talking to church leadership, here, either–I’m talking to everyone who is part of a church community. No, we don’t all need degrees in psychology. But what we do need is some humility in understanding what we do not know, and an interest in learning so that we can understand how to better help the people around us who are suffering.
5. Pray for people you know struggling with mental illness
Pray that we will have strength. Pray that we will not become overwhelmed by life, and that God will shower us with His love and power.
Never underestimate the power of prayer. I know of at least three people from my church who I can text or call when I personally need prayer. They are real prayer warriors. There have been many times where I’ve been in the middle of exams or an extremely stressful situation and gotten through it on strength that was definitely not mine to learn that I had people praying for me the whole time.
Understand that mental illness is more than just being “down”–it’s often a spiritual battle that we feel we can’t fight alone. So instead of leaving our brothers and sisters alone in the battle, let’s stand together as a united front. Rejoice together, suffer together. But whatever we do, let’s do it as the body of Christ.
Mental health is a hard topic. It’s extremely personal, and it can be really scary to talk about it, I’ll be honest! But that doesn’t mean we should shy away from it as a church. We were given a spirit of courage in our knowledge of God’s sovereignty, not a spirit of fear. And with Him, we can face anything.
What are some ways you think the church can help with mental illness? What are some things your church has done to help those who are struggling?
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