Radical Simplicity and a Beautiful, Messy Life

Ten Things The Church Needs to Know About Mental Illness

I know first hand that the church sometimes sucks at dealing with mental illness.

There was the pastor in the new city where I was attending Bible College who told me he had zero interest in helping me navigate through addiction and depression, and that frankly his church would be better off without me.

There was the pastor who insisted I needed to recommit my life to Christ anew because I couldn't possibly be a true Christian and struggle with the things I do.

There have been sisters in Christ who have told me that they have the one book, one prayer, or one dietary change that would cure and erase all my struggles, that dismissed all my pain and progress with the insistence that they know exactly how to "fix" me.

There was gossip and betrayal and so. much. pain.

But I also know that it isn't always like that.

This year my life blew up again in a million different directions and I needed those around me in a way I didn't want to need anyone. And you know what? They came through.

There were friends that brought meals and offered childcare after my stay in the psychiatric inpatient unit; that visited and sat with me in my pain when they didn't know what to say. Who didn't let the awkwardness keep them away.

There is the pastor who pointed me towards professional help and spoke words of truth and life and encouragement to me when I wanted to die.

There were the friends who let me wrestle with my diagnosis out loud. Who nodded and accepted and loved on me while I wondered through a lifetime of decisions, were they me or my illness?

There was another pastor who showed up at the door to cry and pray with my husband while I spent 16 hours in an emergency room being assessed by doctors and psychiatrists and crisis workers.

There were flowers and gift cards and handwritten prayers left on my doorstep.

I know that some of us struggling with mental illness have felt let down by our churches. But I also know this: There are kind and loving people of God, willing to step into one another's stories in very real and practical ways, despite the awkwardness and uncertainty.  I know that there are compassionate people who want to help and understand.  In that vein, here are 10 Things I wish were common knowledge in the church:

1. My mental illness is not a spiritual deficiency.

I believe that everything about us as human beings is spiritual. A broken bone can be an exercise in faith and acceptance, an opportunity for spiritual growth, and a truth window that reveals to us our areas of need. And the broken bone is a reminder of our fallen state, the broken nature of our existence. But the broken bone itself is not sin or a spiritual deficiency. It is not healed by prayer or bible study. One cannot exercise enough faith to live as if the bone weren't broken. Mental illness is the same. My heart grows heavy when I read that 48 percent of evangelicals believe that severe mental illness can be cured by bible study and prayer alone. Mental illness is a spiritual issue in the same way that any wound or illness is a spiritual issue, because we are spiritual people. But mental illness is not a spiritual deficiency. To portray it as one is tantamount to spiritual abuse. This lie, that mental illness is a spiritual problem, or that the sufferer is under spiritual attack, is a dangerous and destructive teaching that turns us into second class Christians because we cannot will away the symptoms of a physically sick and disordered brain.

2. A person's psychiatric diagnosis does not disappear when they accept Jesus into their life.

Can it? Can God heal that person upon their first proclamation of faith? Of course He can. But that's not always how He works. To acknowledge that God doesn't always cure us completely doesn't deny or detract from His goodness.  If anything, it reminds us of his faithfulness as He walks with us through life's ongoing difficulties.

 Sometimes people suffer with an illness until death. Please don't assume that my struggle means I don't know Jesus. Again, to do so is spiritual abuse.

3. This is life or death. 

 Things like Major Depressive Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder and Schizophrenia claim lives every single day. Many people who die by suicide do so in the grip of acute mental illness. Their brain is sick and they are desperate. To discourage any sort of treatment that could be life saving is dangerous and unethical. I have friends who have been advised by pastors and christian counselors to cease taking the medications that allow them to live and function well. This is not okay.

4. Science and faith are not at odds here. 

 When any medical crisis hits, we know intuitively that people require both medical care and spiritual care. Just as we don't expect the Sunday morning service to fill the place of treatment for someone with heart disease, or expect a diabetic to stop taking their insulin and pray instead, nor should we expect the church to fill the role of medication and psychotherapy in the mentally ill person's life. Don't ask a sick person to choose between doctors and church. It is not medical vs spiritual. It is not this or that. It's this and that.

5. Yes, be careful with the trite encouragements, but not so careful that you avoid us. 

As humans we will undoubtedly say the wrong thing from time to time. "God won't give you more than you can handle" is contextually about temptation, not illness. "We all feel down sometimes" is perhaps more dismissive than you realize. But I would take trite over avoidance any day. So don't be so afraid to say the wrong thing that you say nothing at all. Your friends who are suffering want your presence, not perfection.

6. When in doubt, we can compare our responses to mental illness to how we would respond to a diabetic.  

If I am unsure of what to say about a friend's struggle with mental illness, I ask myself "would I take this same attitude or make this comment regarding diabetes?"  For example, If I trust my diabetic friend to manage their condition with the help of their doctor and the tools available to them, I can do the same for my mentally ill friends.  It's not a perfect comparison, but it's a helpful rule of thumb. 

7.If it is brave and bold to struggle openly and out loud with mental illness when I am mostly thriving, it is still brave and bold to speak openly when I'm symptomatic. 

I've often been praised by loved ones and strangers for speaking openly about mental illness, until I became symptomatic. And then maybe I shouldn't be so open and honest. It's messy, and awkward, and they would rather I hide away until my emotional responses better fit their definition of normal.

8. Stigma is bad, and I do it to myself. 

It's called self stigma. I feel embarrassed for my symptoms. I shy away from the truth and hide my experiences in fear that I will come across as psycho or unbearable. I type out an honest facebook status and then press delete. I share honestly with a friend and then apologize.  I wrestle with whether or not taking psychiatric drugs makes me "nuts." But my friends remind me that I should feel no more shame than if I had any other illness. The fact that my attempts to manage my illness are not always successful is not shameful, it is a fact of life in this broken world.

I really believe that as people living with mental illness in the church (up to 25% of us at any given time) we can help end that self stigma by speaking honestly about our experiences. We can trust that when we advocate for ourselves we are advocating for countless others in similar situations. But that's easier said than done.

9. There are no simple answers. 

We are talking about complex problems that often involve multifaceted approaches that will have to change over time. What works today to manage my illness might not work 2 years from now. And yes, I've probably read that book or tried that herbal supplement you think will heal me. It didn't. Please don't dismiss a lifetime of coping with the suggestion that you have the one resource that will change everything.

10. The church, as we know it, is us. We decide daily whether to rally around and support or ignore and judge.

If you only take away one thing from this article, I hope it is this: We can change the church because we can change our own response to people around us who are in pain.

Is the church failing those with mental illness? That is up to us. You and I. Because we are the church. And if we want the church to be a safe place for people to openly share their struggles, then we need to respond in love and support to those around us. You and I can be like my friends this year who brought casseroles and encouragement. Or we can be the people who look away from mess and pain, who judge without knowing and condemn before reaching out. You and I decide the church's response to mental illness every single day, in the ways we choose to engage those who are suffering, in the way we choose to tell our own stories, in the way we choose to respond to the needs around us.

Is the church failing people with mental illness? Sometimes, yes. But the church is also rallying around in support and love, learning and listening so that they can better be there for their brothers and sisters who are hurting. Let's be that church today.

1 comment

  1. Wow Kelly ! What a fabulous post you have written. Your words are so encouraging, loving and full of truth. So many people can relate and I am hopeful your word is far reaching to those who need it !