I can still see her knowing nod as she told me that she would pray for me to trust God more and give Him all my problems. That was it. She then walked piously away never taking the time to listen to my pain, let alone come alongside me. There was no support for me to find tangible help to sort out the messiness of my eating disorder, alcoholism, deep suicidal depression and the anxiety that gnawed a hole in my chest.
Often the heaviness of mental health issues causes people to not know how to best offer help. Sometimes it goes beyond not knowing and is simply a stigma that continues to allow piety to look down on those with mental health issues. I believe that when that stigma is found within the church, piety’s wound is even deeper.
I am not saying that every church or person found there holds this view of mental health. There are wonderful people found in the church who most certainly understand the difficulty of living with mental health issues and support those suffering. However, just as a large swath of our general society holds a tainted view of mental health, this stigma within the church remains an issue. I feel strongly about addressing the stigma within the church because the church has such a potential to offer hope and encouragement with the love and grace of Jesus Christ.
I want to offer three ways the church and Christians can help reduce mental health stigma.
1.Don’t judge my spirituality by the mental health issues in my life.
I want you to imagine a pastor saying to a church-goer who has Type II diabetes that she wouldn’t need to take her insulin or other diabetic medication if she trusted God more. It’s a ridiculous thing to consider, isn’t it? Now imagine the shame when a pastor or Christian tells someone diagnosed with depression or anxiety that if only she gave God her hurts and worries and trusted Him more, she wouldn’t need to take medication to manage her depression and anxiety. I’ve experienced enough and have spoken enough with women around the country to know this happens and the shame is real.
Simply because the organ in need of medication is in my head (my brain) and not in my abdomen (my pancreas), Christians seem to be more inclined to pass judgment.
It is well-documented that decreased levels of serotonin and norepinephrine contribute to depression so why would anyone shame me and doubt my faith in God because I take a needed medication? There seems to be no shaming for the Type II diabetic whose pancreas produces decreased levels of insulin and needs medication. The church needs to see with understanding that a mental health medication can be a necessary help and that there need not be any shame in that.
2. Support me as I seek out help from medical and mental health professionals.
I have heard all kinds of reasons from church leaders and Christians why seeing a competent and trusted therapist shouldn’t be needed. “No need to have to go sort out your mommy or daddy issues with a therapist.” “You just need to sit down with the pastor and pray with him.” “Your mental health distress is only a spiritual problem, so you should just keep it within the church to sort it all out.”
I have talked with Christian women who were told by church pastors and leaders to not tell anyone of sexual abuse they have suffered. These women were then deeply shamed as they were told the abuse was their fault.
I know that pastors and Christian leaders can be an immense help in the healing process. I’ve experienced that as well. The Bible has been a huge source of helping me redefine and know who I am in Christ. However, there are mental health professionals trained in specialized techniques and methods to best help those suffering from past abuse, deep shame and grief.
Back to my example of the Type II diabetic…why do people not tell the diabetic to sit in the pastor’s office or go to a Bible study to diagnose and treat their insulin disease? People know that a medical doctor and dietician are people that specialize in the care of diabetes and are proper healthcare providers for a diabetic. I find it incredibly difficult to understand why a pastor or Christian leader would think that he/she is able to solely deal with a mental health disorder. God is the Great Healer and He uses the medication and well-documented science we have today. God created science. God and science are not juxtaposed. If we are willing to send the diabetic to the correct needed professional for help, then we must be willing and open to send those with mental health problems to the correct and needed professional also.
3. Don’t pretend there are not many within the church who suffer mental illness.
We live in a world that is filled with much pain. All kinds of abuse have happened to people we know. Deep grief, fear, and shame are buried deeply in people we meet every day. Wounded people wound other people and there lies the continuance of patterns that perpetuates mental health disorders. Shame proliferates in one’s soul and soon condemnation whispers in the mind that life is no longer something worth mattering. This is the work of Evil.
Jesus gave His life on the cross to forever defeat Evil. Romans 8 is my very favorite chapter in the entire Bible. It begins declaring that my standing before God is secure because of my faith in Christ Jesus. The chapter ends with the conviction that absolutely nothing…. nothing….can separate me from the love of God because of Christ Jesus’s work on the cross. In my recovery journey I have spent countless hours here in the Word. It’s because to someone so deep in the mire of shame and self-hatred these words breathe hope and life.
The shame of being told by people in the church that mental health issues are a sign of a weak faith and that one is simply not trusting God enough, is simply often more than someone can bear. That suffering person then leaves the church which is the very place where hope, love and caring should be taking place. Church-goers are often afraid to be open about their struggles for fear of judgment. I know there are many within the church with deep hurts and struggles who suffer in silence or spiral further down because of the stigma of mental health. My prayer is that each one of us in the church would be willing to see those hurting and come alongside to offer encouragement and hope. I pray that we would not pass judgment as we help find the appropriate and reputable mental health care for those hurting.