According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), in America alone, 43.8 million adults experience mental illness in a given year. That breaks down to one in five adults!
Unfortunately, only 41% of adults in the U.S. with a mental health condition received help in the previous year. NAMI states that social stigma creates “an environment of shame, fear and silence that prevents many people from seeking help and treatment.”
The stigma of mental illness is actually worse within the Christian community than outside of it.
What are the consequences of a lack of treatment? Increased chances of further mental health issues, chronic physical conditions, addictions, and even suicide.
That’s why NAMI has designated May as Mental Health Month, with #CureStigma as this year’s theme. They propose we tackle social stigma by promoting “compassion, empathy and understanding.”
If you think that stigma is only an issue “in the secular world,” think again. In my experience, the stigma of mental illness is actually worse within the Christian community than outside of it.
After my grandmother passed away, I struggled with grief and depression for two years. Normally, I would turn to my family in times of need, but they were struggling, too. Although I could have reached out to a counselor, doctor, or pastor, I never did. Looking back, I think it was the fear of being labeled as crazy or weak that kept me from seeking help.
Thankfully, God lifted my depression supernaturally. A couple years later, I finally sought Christian counseling and received healing for the root causes of grief and anger. Today, I’m whole and healthy. Still, I can’t help but wonder if I could have recovered faster if I had sought treatment earlier.
Today, I know many Christians who struggle with mental health issues including anxiety, depression, eating disorders, ADHD, phobias, and PTSD. While some of them are open about their issues, most of them suffer in silence for fear of judgment (only sharing their experiences with me in strict confidence). Those who have sought help through counseling or anti-depressants tell me they’re glad to being doing well, but they feel weak, ashamed, and less-faithful because they needed the extra help.
This self-condemnation is often the result of judgment they received from well-meaning Christians who believe that mental illness is really spiritual illness in disguise. There are three main lies that perpetuate this belief in churches across America. Let’s fight these lies with God’s truth so we can cure stigma and make the church a safe haven for people with mental illness.
Lies We Hear at Church
Lie 1: Christians can’t experience mental illnesses.
“What fellowship has light with darkness?” (2 Corinthians 6:14b NAS).
Many people think that Scriptures like this one indicate true mental illness can’t exist in someone filled with the Holy Spirit. The problem with this line of thinking, though, is that it equates mental illness with demonic possession. (And the Scripture noted above? It’s in reference to Christians forming alliances with non-believers. It has nothing to do with illness or demonic possession.)
My heart throbs, my strength fails me; and the light of my eyes, even that has gone from me. My loved ones and my friends stand aloof from my plague; and my kinsmen stand afar off. Psalm 38:10-11
While demons and their interaction with humans are well-documented throughout the Bible, true mental health issues can and do exist without a demonic source. Such was the case with King David. He was a man after God’s own heart, and yet he experienced periods of depression: “My heart throbs, my strength fails me; and the light of my eyes, even that has gone from me. My loved ones and my friends stand aloof from my plague; and my kinsmen stand afar off.” (Psalm 38:10-11 NAS)
So what causes mental illness? According to NAMI, “Genetics, environment and lifestyle influence whether someone develops a mental health condition. A stressful job or home life makes some people more susceptible, as do traumatic life events like being the victim of a crime. Biochemical processes and circuits and basic brain structure may play a role, too.”
Becoming a Christian doesn’t erase a painful past. Nor does being a Christian promise a trauma-free, healthy future. In fact, believers everywhere fall off ladders, get the flu, and suffer from cancer. Trauma and illness are a result of our fallen world; they have nothing to do with the spiritual state of the one who gets injured or sick.
Lie 2: The cure to mental illness is to repent and have more faith.
It is true that some sins can open the door to mental illness. For example, the guilt of aborting a child or killing someone while driving drunk may result in mental health issues, like depression, later on. Such people can certainly find grace and spiritual healing through repentance.
In the end, only God knows our hearts. (See 1 Kings 8:39.) He also knows what ails us and what is needed to mend us.
The problem comes when we assume that all mental illness has a sinful source. The truth is that many people who suffer from mental health issues are victims of others’ actions or circumstances, not perpetrators who need to confess their sins.
As far as faith is concerned, the people I know with mental health issues rely heavily on their faith. It’s what gets them out of bed in the morning, helps them face their stressful jobs, and enables them to put one foot in front of the other. These people have a lot to teach the rest of the world about living on faith in the face of adversity.
In the end, only God knows our hearts. (See 1 Kings 8:39.) He also knows what ails us and what is needed to mend us. When speaking of others, we should always extend grace and remember Jesus’ words: “Do not judge so that you will not be judged” (Matthew 7:1 NAS).
Lie 3: Medications like anti-depressants are evil.
I know several Christians who take medications for anxiety, ADHD, or depression. Each of them has told me how it enables them to think more clearly, respond more rationally and, in general, handle life better. Yet they’re ashamed of having to take medication and afraid of what their families and churches would think if they knew.
If you know someone who takes medication for her mental illness, don’t create a stumbling block for her by insinuating that’s it wrong for her to take it.
God enables doctors to create medicine to cure diseases, mend damaged organs, and repair physical deformities. Why would medication for mental illness be considered evil when other medicines are touted as “miracle drugs”?
We would do well to remember Paul’s words, “that nothing is unclean in itself; but to him who thinks anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean….Therefore do not let what is for you a good thing be spoken of as evil…” (Romans 14:14, 16).
Helpful, effective medication is not evil when used appropriately. If you know someone who takes medication for her mental illness, don’t create a stumbling block for her by insinuating that’s it wrong for her to take it.
Depression – Helping Others
As James said, “pray for one another so that you may be healed. The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much” (James 5:16 NAS). If you believe someone at church is suffering from a mental health issue, you can help by praying for God’s protection and peace over her, as well as a complete healing. Also pray for yourself, that you would do and say the right thing at the right time.
Many people with mental health issues feel isolated and rejected. You can help fix this by including them in your conversations, your Bible studies, and your lunches.
Many people with mental health issues feel isolated and rejected. You can help fix this by including them in your conversations, your Bible studies, and your lunches. You never know when a kind word can be the lifeline someone needs.
Paul said that God “comforts the depressed” (2 Corinthians 7:6a NAS). As representatives of God on earth, we should seek to do the same—to bring comfort to those in need. To do so, we’ll need to stand on God’s Word and stop perpetuating the lie that mental health issues are really spiritual issues. Only then can we cure stigma in the church and reach out to our brothers and sisters who struggle with mental health issues.
There are many helpful resources online. Here are a few to get you started:
National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)
The American Association of Christian Counselors
Your Life Counts
“It Can’t Be Depression…I’m a Christian,” an excellent article by Mark Mounts, a licensed counselor and pastor and survivor of depression.
~ By Ashley L. Jones of BigSisterKnows.com