Talking about Faith and Mental Illness

Talking about Faith and Mental Illness

Perhaps I’m fortunate for never having personally experienced mental illness. Yes, I’ve experienced stressful and anxious periods. Yes, I’ve had seasons when I was down or felt like I didn’t have my usual drive. But that’s not the same thing as having a mental illness.

Like many people, I’ve struggled to understand what mental illness is. But seeing it play out in the life of a loved one has transformed my thinking about depression and anxiety. I know many others who have experienced similar awakenings.

Martin Luther said, “Affliction is the best book in my library.” If that is true, then those who struggle with mental illness should be the most educated among us. Despite this, many Christians talk about mental illness in the most unhelpful and even hurtful ways.

I believe churches need to understand mental illness and start discussing it openly in healthy, helpful ways. One in three people will struggle with an anxiety disorder or depression at some point in their lives. Twenty-five percent of young adults are currently experiencing mental illness. [1]

Mental illness is all around you. Ignoring it helps no one. But in the absence of clear teaching on faith and mental health, some very poor theology has sprung up. You must carefully scrape that away before starting to construct a healthier approach to the struggles of the human mind.

Mental illness is no laughing matter, but many folks labor to make sense of it. Even well-meaning Christians say misguided things that are sound words of advice in some contexts but harmful when spoken to someone who is mentally ill.

For example, you might tell someone, “When God closes a door, he always opens a window.” Some of us use platitudes such as “pray harder” or “let Jesus in.” Others quote Scriptures like, “Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you” (1 Pet. 5:7).

Is there anything wrong with Scripture or with these slogans? These words can mean the world to some people, or they might be great guidance when a person needs to dust themselves off and get back in there. But for those struggling with depression or an anxiety disorder, they can be unhelpful at best and hurtful at worst.

So where should you start? If your church wants to talk about mental health, I’d suggest nine things you ought to know.

  1. Mental illness is illness. Period. Your brain is an organ just as your heart, lungs, and kidneys are organs. When someone has heart disease, we don’t say, “Oh, they’re just sick in the heart.” Heart disease is real sickness. In the same way, illnesses of the brain are actual sicknesses.

  2. When your brain becomes sick, you can’t pray it away any more or less than you can pray away diabetes. God may occasionally provide healing in inexplicable ways. But most often, God works miracles through “ordinary” means. Therefore, a person who seeks medical help for a mental illness is not lacking in faith but rather availing themselves of God’s gifts of healing.

  3. Mental illnesses come from genetic and environmental sources, and we don’t fully know what triggers them. The same is true for other diseases. Clearly some can be triggered by an event or series of events, but the origins of others are less clear.

  4. Having a mental illness is not sinful, and it is not necessarily caused by sin any more than other ailments of the human body. Sins sometimes lead to disease, but the onset of disease is separate from any sin that might have contributed.

  5. Your brain produces important chemicals that regulate many functions in your body, and mental illness interrupts or disrupts this process. Today, health professionals know an increasing amount about these chemicals that control a person’s moods, bodily function, etc. It’s important to remember that brain diseases often cause other physical symptoms.

  6. With brain disorders, the symptoms can take different forms in different people. Some who suffer from mental illness can’t get out of bed. Others with the same kind of illness can’t sleep. The same applies to other areas of a person’s health such as appetite, sex drive, etc. This variety of symptoms can confuse those who already doubt the legitimacy of mental illness.

  7. Mental health issues can be addressed with therapy and with pharmaceuticals. Therapy can provide coping mechanisms and even healing. Pharmaceuticals can replace or supplement the brain’s natural production of crucial chemicals.

  8. An absolutely vital part of treatment is to receive love, support, and understanding from family members and friends. During therapy for mental illness, relationships can often feel one-sided, as the one who is ill is often unable to reciprocate in the giving of love. Not everyone can walk this journey equally.

  9. To offer refuge for those struggling with depression and anxiety, a church should realize that many don’t want contact or hugs. Some individuals who are struggling with anxiety or depression may need the inspiration of being in worship yet not be able to interact with others while doing so. Church leaders ought to weigh whether their welcoming strategies allow space for those who can’t momentarily handle much interpersonal contact.

To provide space for those struggling with mental illness, Christians must stop trying to fix people and instead focus on being present. In his book Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote:

It is not that God is the spectator and sharer of our present life … but rather that we are the reverent listeners and participants in God’s action in the sacred story, the history of Christ on the earth. And only insomuch as we are there, is God with us also today.

Learning to love those with mental illnesses can teach us a lot about how to be present with God and with each other, a lesson that may meet one of our greatest deficiencies in the church today.

[1] These numbers are from the National Institute for Mental Health.

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