By Amanda Idleman, Crosswalk.com
There is a long-standing narrative in our culture, especially in our churches, that mental illness is more of a moral failing than experiencing any other clinically diagnosable disease. All illness in our bodies is a mind, body, and soul experience. When we are suffering due to an ailment, we need the peace of God to help us endure our trials; we need to make changes in how we care for our bodies to experience healing. We need a community to call on to support us on our journey, and we should pray diligently that God offers us healing. We often rely on the expertise of professionals and take medication as tools for us to find that healing.
All of the actions described above are the exact same steps necessary for a person to find healing or relief from mental illness. Yet, just last week, I sat in a service where those taking anti-anxiety medications were a group being called out. Clearly, we still lack in our ability to address mental illness in church with grace and understanding. Many Christians believe that mental illness is more than an ailment; it is a spiritual failure.
If you've never struggled with your mental health, it can be hard to understand what it feels like to have your mind and body hijacked by the crushing weights of anxiety, depression, or other debilitating mental illnesses; I assure you, as someone that has walked this trying road, there is more to these terrifying experiences than a lack of a proper understanding of God's Word. God's Word is an amazing tool that does help us all find healing in our lives. Nonetheless, when we are experiencing clinical forms of mental distress, we also need the help of our community and professionals to find balance in our bodies again.
Just as the church would not shame, discourage, or call out a person with diabetes for taking insulin, we also should be careful not to use words that would stigmatize treatments for a person being treated for mental illness. Spiritual leaders need to take note of this medical crisis that is happening in their communities and begin to educate themselves on how to love people well that need the love of Christ, their community, and the guidance of experts to find healing.
1. An Insufficient Understanding in Churches About Mental Health Leads to Further Suffering
I remember the first time I began experiencing unexplained waves of anxiety; I was utterly confused. It took me months to figure out what was happening to me. I was a new Mom of two boys, and I loved them so very much. I spent daily time in the Word, attended Bible study, was careful to practice healthy habits, and was grateful for my sweet family.
Yet, somehow I would find myself paralyzed in everyday situations by debilitating fear. Awful images of what may happen to my kids popped into my head while doing the laundry. Sometimes I would be awakened from my sleep because an uninvited panic attack was terrorizing my entire body. My dreams began haunting me. I suddenly realized that despite all my efforts to capture and replace these horrible thoughts with God's Word, I was struggling day and night with chronic anxiety.
I had only heard of postpartum depression, so I couldn't realize I was experiencing a postpartum anxiety disorder. It took years for me to understand this was a hormonal imbalance and the onset of a chronic physical disorder in my body, not a sudden inability to love the Lord.
I remember, at the start of all this, trying to share what was going on with my friends and family. They are all believers and love me well. None of them had the language to help me understand that this experience was more than me needing to capture my thoughts better, pray more, or improve my spiritual practice (all things they advised and I diligently did). I had never met another believer that struggled like me. I felt wholly alone, ashamed, and completely paralyzed.
I once read that those experiencing anxiety and depression need one person to call their "lifeline." Someone safe that they can confess to that they are struggling. I expressed this idea to my spouse, and because he didn't have any context for mental illness outside of it being a selfish, spiritual failure, he could not understand what I was asking for.
The suffering of us both continued until I finally humbly filled the prescription I had been subtly taught by my spiritual leaders equaled my ultimate failure for my whole life. It took me eight years to finally reach the end of my strength and trust God in this new way.
Thankfully, I now know that my healing came graciously from the Lord in the form of that little white pill. Medication is not for everyone, but we should not be shamed out of exploring this option by the church when it could be the very tool God desires to use as a means for you to better experience his peace and joy.
I knew God's peace and joy during my struggles, but it was so much harder when I was constantly fighting my mind and body on a daily basis.
2. Shaming Mental Health Leads to Further Alienation for Those Struggling
A friend recently expressed that the paralyzing sense of shame that can be a common part of those experiencing anxiety or depression can appear to others as selfishness. I can see how the people on the other side of a mental health struggle can feel that the person trapped in their mind is doing so out of a selfish motive. Yet, I think this idea that those trapped in their thoughts are always self-obsessed fails to see the whole picture of what mental illness often is.
There are indeed personality disorders, behaviors, and other issues that are born out of self-obsession but the suffering mostly stays stuck because they don't see a way out. We need God's light and the loving guidance of others to help us see the path to healing. Truth be told, we all are selfish, prideful, and broken. Yet, why say this battle for mental health is an especially selfish one, further alienating someone who already feels confused and alone?
Encourage your hurting loved ones that the battle they face is not theirs to carry alone. Let them know that God sees their struggle and loves them. There is no shame in striving to find healing when dealing with a broken body. All our bodies are working against us, fading slowly into dust.
Do all you can to remove the stigma and the shame, and encourage those in those places to seek the professional support they need. Be their lifeline when they find themselves crying alone in the car or having a wave of anxiety. Be willing to press pause to hear someone else's battle for a moment. No matter how easy it can be to judge another's weakness, resist the urge and offer grace instead.
3. Christ Alone Has the Perfect Mind
Part of the church's struggle with this topic stems from an incomplete understanding of the many verses that address our mental battles with fear and anxiety. God over and over comforts us, telling us that when we are afraid, we can trust him. God knows our minds are weak, and fear will be a part of our human experience. This is why he kindly addresses our fears with words of comfort, but somehow those same words have been a catalyst to point blame at ourselves or other believers as if we are lesser in our faith because we are enduring a battle of the mind.
One wise friend explained that we all have fallen minds; only Christ had the perfect mind. We often pray that God would give us the mind of Christ because it's impossible to live our lives with peace and wisdom without access to our Father. We all struggle to see our world, circumstances, relationships, and futures without struggles.
This grace that says there is not one of us that gets our thoughts right helps to break the stigma around anxiety or depression. We need to share the truth that God sees our minds and bodies struggle. He is here for us on the journey that looks like prayer, self-care, medical care, and more.
After the most recent experience with a sermon that mentioned those who take anti-anxiety meds but failed to mention how these things can be tools for our healing, I left feeling the same guilt and shame that paralyzed me for years. Sometimes we don't want to think of how our words may trigger someone else, but it's important to understand that these topics are sensitive.
One statement that gutted me was that we cannot live with gratitude and anxiety. I literally spent years so ashamed and frustrated because I was so grateful for my life, my family, and my God, but I went to bed at night battling waves of panic. I was dumbfounded by the paradox between what I practiced and how my body felt. You can be so very grateful and so very anxious.
Life is complex, and how we find freedom is often different for every person. Leaders of the faith, as we talk about this very complex issue, let's be open to hearing, willing to learn, and filled with love.