I’ve struggled with depression. I’ve struggled with anxiety. I’ve struggled with obsessive compulsive disorder. I’ve struggled with low self-worth and low self-esteem. I’ve struggled with unhealthy boundaries. I’ve struggled with unhealthy relationships with others. I’ve struggled with co-dependency. I’ve struggled with anorexia, exercise bulimia, and binge-eating. I’ve been abused. I’ve struggled with sin. I’ve struggled with cutting. I’ve struggled with suicidality. And there have been times in the past decade where I should have been put in the psychiatric hospital for being emotionally unstable and a danger to myself.
And I will continue to struggle for as long as I live.
I have always been blessed to be a part of churches and Christian groups that have accepted me and supported me through these dark times, and who have encouraged me to seek out professional mental health services when my issues were out of their scope of competence. However, I know that this has not been the majority experience with regards to mental illness and the Church. Mental illness is an area that the Church as a whole has historically sucked at addressing.
Here are some of the lies that are prevalent in Christian culture and the Church, whether spoken or unspoken, that I believe contribute to the stigmatization of mental illness in the Church (and might I add, particularly in the Asian Church).
1. You have to be perfect and have it all together to be acceptable before the Church and before God.
In a culture of performance and perfection, a culture that is especially prevalent in the Asian church, no one wants to be the first to admit they’re struggling with mental illness. This culture, where everyone around you seems like they’ve got everything together, where everyone is a “good” Christian, where no one is struggling with anything, where you know that others judge those who are struggling…well, it’s a damaging environment when it comes to de-stigmatizing mental illness in the Church. It’s not safe, especially if it’s something you’re deeply ashamed of and especially if it’s something you think no one else will understand.
The truth is, the Church and the presence of God is especially for those who are struggling, especially for those who don’t have it all together, especially for those who mess up, especially for those who are broken and need to be put back together. So why do we not see this throne room of grace reflected in the Church as a whole? Why do we see a mass exodus of people who are struggling with mental illness from the Church?
2. Mental illness is a punishment for disobedience.
“You must have sinned, so now God is punishing you in this way.”
“There must be something that you haven’t repented from, which is why God’s allowing you to struggle.”
Are you kidding me? What a limited view of God and His goodness, mercy, and grace. God is not some unreachable being in the sky just waiting around to punish us.
The reality is, there are times where the state of our mental health is impacted by the decisions we make in our lives (Lady Wisdom, yo). For example, if I do certain drugs, my brain chemistry may be altered for the rest of my life and I may end up with some sort of permanent mental functioning. Or if I sin against someone, there may be some relational baggage and loss of trust for a time. This is just reality.
But there are also times where mental illness is completely unrelated to anything we have done. If I tell you that I’m depressed and you try to “help” by asking, “Is there something you’ve done to make God angry?” 1. If I’m not a solid Christian, I’m going to think God is punishing me for I don’t know what, driving a wedge between God and I, and 2. I am DEFINITELY not going to tell anyone else if that’s “God’s” perception of my mental illness. I would rather let it fester in the dark than bring it out into the accusatory light.
3. Mental illness is merely a spiritual problem.
“Maybe you should just trust in God more and find the joy of the Lord.”
“Well if God were enough, you wouldn’t have this problem.”
Well good for you that it’s that simple for you. But it’s not for most. Yes, mental illness can be a spiritual issue, but it is also most definitely a mental, a physical, an emotional, and a relational one as well. To limit one’s resources to just their pastor or just Scripture greatly limits all of the resources that God has created for the purpose of healing. God can work through resources such as anti-depressants and, *gasp*, even secular therapy, More on drugs later.
I know many people have great intentions in helping their struggling friends, but in the process have grossly over-simplified the “answer” to mental illness because they either haven’t experienced it for themselves or they were able to find joy in God and it worked for them.
Mental illness is so much more complex than you can imagine, and while God can heal mental illness in an instant, it doesn’t mean that He will. This mentality of mental illness as just a spiritual problem further alienates the struggling Christian from God, adds unnecessary guilt that God isn’t enough in their lives to have their struggle magically go away, and further shames the Christian struggling with mental illness.
4. A pastor or Christian worker is essentially the same thing as a mental health professional.
Pastors go to school for theological training. Doctors go to school for medical training. Would you go to a pastor for medical advice? I don’t think so.
While the Bible has a lot to say about mental illness, most pastors and Christian workers have not studied the Bible for the explicit purpose of learning how to work with mental illness. I realized early on in my time as a full-time Christian worker that though I’d had an extensive personal history of mental illness and though I was comfortable in navigating through and studying Scripture, I was still ill-equipped for some really serious issues related to mental health, namely abuse and trauma, which is why I went back to get my Master’s in Marriage and Family Therapy. And then in school, I realized how wrong my approach had been in approaching mental illness all along as a Christian worker.
Some pastors and Christian workers have additional counseling experience and training, which is fantastic. But for untrained pastors and Christian workers to insist they are all the professional mental health service one needs and to advise a struggling Christian to not seek additional professional counseling “because it’s secular” usually ends up with people even more damaged than before and/or even more alienated from God (notice a trend?). Why? Because mental illness is all too often simplified and approached by well-meaning but untrained pastors and Christian workers within a framework of 2. and 3. above, which you just fix by reading your Bible more and praying more and sinning less.
5. If you struggle with mental illness or sin, you don’t love God enough.
Life is a struggle. It will be until our dying breath. And some people have the same struggle throughout their entire lives. Personally, I struggle with a cyclical depression that rears it’s ugly head about once every four years (still trying to figure out if it’s physiological or situational). And knowing doesn’t make the struggle any easier. How many times have I cried out to God, apologizing and beating myself up that I don’t love Him enough for my struggles to just magically go away? How many times have I heard others express the same shame and guilt for struggling with the same thing over and over again?
And yet Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 12:7-10:
Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
God doesn’t say to Paul, “Well, there you go struggling again! What, do you not love me enough to just STOP it?” No, instead, God meets us all the more deeply and all the more sweetly in our struggle. There is no shame in the struggle with mental illness. For when we are weak, then we are strong in Him. And He loves us no less in our struggle and no more in times of health, because His love has nothing to do with anything we could ever do and nothing to do with however we might feel. His love is steadfast and unchanging, because of who He is.
By far, the two greatest tragedies that could happen as a result of the stigmatization of mental illness in the Church are:
1. Individuals walk away from God, thinking His presence is no place for broken people like them, or
2. Individuals, consumed with hopelessness and in isolation from God and others, take their own lives.
Unfortunately, we have known people who have done both.
Friends, this is a matter of life and death. This is a matter of life to the full or life stolen away. Do we want to keep this culture alive? Or do we want to cultivate a culture where Jesus is invited into the deeply broken places of our hearts, minds, souls, and bodies?
Stay tuned for some follow-up thoughts on what we can do to cultivate an environment of safety, love, and mercy later this week. And the drugs too. Or maybe not this week. We’ll see.
In your experience, has the Church been a safe place to share your struggles with mental illness? Can you identify with any of the lies underlying the stigma of mental illness in the Church? And are there any lies underlying the stigma of mental illness in the Church that I missed?