As I think about Robin William’s unfortunate death I am reminded of countless individuals in our country and in our world who face severe depression, eating disorders, drug abuse, and various other forms of mental illness each day. The unfortunate reality is that for as common as mental illness is in our world, many churches and pastors are not properly equipped to care for their flock. Many seminaries do not spend near as much time as they should to teach a pastor or church leader how to properly care for, counsel, or be with someone whose scars are not physical. Recounting my own seminary experience as someone who did not major in pastoral or clinical counselling, I can attest to the fact that mental illness was not really a focus in the majority of my classes and if it was it was more surface level than anything else. Add to this the fact that many churches do not preach sermons related to mental illness and see it as something shameful or a flaw in a person’s impeccable record of faith. After all, a TRUE Christian wouldn’t feel this way. A TRUE Christian would trust God at all times and never feel anxious or depressed. A TRUE Christian would know that God would never give them something more than they could handle…. Yeah… totally not true. Below, I’d like to dispel some of the most common myths about mental illness in hopes that our churches can become more inclusive and safe places for all individuals regardless of what life circumstances might bring to them.
#1: I’m a Smart, Successful, Educated (fill in the blank) Person. Mental illness could never happen to me (or my family)
Mental illness affects more people than we may realize. Many studies even suggest that as many as 1 out of every 4 adults will face mental illness at one point or another in their lives and the rates increase due to certain medical conditions as well as due to natural factors such as child birth. On average, more women are diagnosed with mental illnesses every year (which could also be a result of hormonal factors), however, women are on average more willing to accept professional help for their symptoms in comparison to men. With 25% of the Canadian population facing mental illness at one time or another, it is completely possible that you, a very close friend, or a family member may be experiencing some troubling symptoms. With a quarter of the population struggling it is also A SURE FACT that a number of people in your congregation are also struggling. Many of whom are probably not where to turn for help or even sure how to ask because they don’t want to be seen as “crazy” or “disillusioned.”
Mental illness affects people from a variety of socio-economic, educational, and religious backgrounds. Having a faith in Christ DOES provide great comfort and hope but IS NOT a magic cure to end pain and suffering. Some of the most creative and bright people experience depression and anxiety.
NOT everyone who has a mental illness will end up homeless, unable to hold down a job, or unable to have a family. In fact, the percentage of people for whom this is the case is relatively small in proportion to the amount of people who are diagnosed each year. On the contrary, many people with depression, bipolar, anxiety, or OCD are able to not only finish school but to excel at their jobs and to be excellent parents. They may occasionally struggle from time to time and have to ask for an extended leave from work or extensions on their papers, but in between episodes, many of them are quite stable and have the potential to be great friends and even very supportive helpers to others who go through similar experiences.
#2: Mental illness is a sign of weakness
Some people believe that if they ask for help when facing a mental illness that they are showing they are weak and unable to take care of themselves. Our culture thrives off of individualism and being a self-made man or woman. We have no time for people who don’t fit into that mould. In reality, this is not the way that God ever intended human life to look like. In the Garden of Eden God saw that it was not good for a man to be alone and so He created a spouse, a HELPER for Adam. He intended humans to live in community, to be vulnerable with one another, and to help each other out.
The unfortunate reality of many churches is that because they lack knowledge and understanding about mental illness that instead of seeing how to gently walk with a struggling person they right away put up this defense mechanism that it is the person’s own fault. Jesus did not come as Superman. The book of Hebrews reminds us that He was tempted in every regard as we are yet without sin. Jesus understood pain and suffering. He understood grief, denial, and rejection. He even understood what it was like to not be able to feel God’s presence in His life anymore.
Churches are great at quoting verses out of context thus maligning a person who experiences mental health difficulties. They may make outrageous claims such as that God will never give us more than we can bear. Many Christians mean well when they make share these statements and may even believe that they are helpful or a good reminder, however, when someone is facing severe depression and is not even able to get out of bed in the morning IT IS more than they can bear at that time. What the verse actually is saying is not that we will never feel that a situation is more than we can bear, but that we will never be TEMPTED beyond what we can bear because God provides a way out for us (through our belief in Christ). God IS faithful and He does care about our lives, but quoting Scripture at someone who feels incredibly hopeless is probably not the best way to show them Christian care and compassion.
This problem is further compounded by people who out of desperation and who do not know what else to say in this moment make sharp remarks like “just snap out of it” or “you’ve been feeling this way for 3 months, it’s time to get over it” or even “you just need to stop self-pitying yourself.” Living and caring for someone with a mental illness is HARD work. It’s a commitment that doesn’t get any easier over time. HOWEVER, people who face severe depression, anxiety, or OCD are not able to “just snap out of it.” This phrase makes it sound like it was their choice in the first place to feel this way. When in reality, the majority of people who have mental illness DO NOT “pretend” to feel bad in order to get your attention and sympathy. In fact, many of them feel terrible that they think this way and feel like they aren’t being a good friend or being helpful because of their struggles.
Rather than churches making it sound like a person can choose or not choose to be depressed at will, churches need to surround these individuals with love, support, and care. Providing them with help when they are unable to help themselves. Showing them the love of Christ rather than displaying their own ignorance or frustration.
#3: Mental illness (especially schizophrenia and bipolar) are sinful and a sign of demonic oppression/possession
Yes, this claim is outrageous, but you would not believe the amount of people who have asked my opinion on this question since I recently took a spiritual warfare course. Depression is not a sin. It is a combination of hormonal and chemical imbalances as well as life situations and possibly unresolved childhood issues. Depression may result from sin in the general sense because after sin entered the world pain and suffering ensued, however, just like #2 suggests it is not a sign of weakness or a sign that someone is not truly following Christ. In fact, it is thought that many famous and very influential Christians have faced depression or other mental illnesses. Mother Theresa often had bouts of depression, St. John of the Cross (who wrote an entire book on the Dark Night of the Soul) likely also suffered from depression. In fact, in a recent Self-Care and Ministry class that I took at McMaster Divinity College I did some research and learned in class that as many as 60% of pastors (or even more) will face depression. This is due in large part to the nature of their work, the demands placed on them, and having a lack of understanding on proper self-care techniques. Christian counsellors and chaplains as well as nurses, doctors, and social workers may also face high rates of burn-out and possibly even mental illness due to the nature of their work and the issues that others are bringing to them daily.
Even the most charismatic of people who are big into Spiritual Warfare would generally admit that even if a person was delivered (from a demon) they should still continue to take their medications and that deliverance does not necessarily equal complete healing.
In fact, it is very hurtful and even dangerous for churches to make outrageous claims such as that because a person is bipolar they are demonized or that people who have depression should just stop taking their medications and believe that God will heal them. They need to have such faith. This is completely bogus! How many Christians do you know would tell someone with diabetes they should stop taking their insulin or someone with asthma to stop using a puffer because God is going to heal them if they only had faith? Not many churches would do this and many of them would think it was sheer foolishness to suggest this… but for some reason when it comes to mental illness we have a different standard all together?
Rather than making outrageous claims that are based more on fairy tales and fanciful myths than on the truth of the Gospel, we should focus on what Christ actually said. That He did not come to condemn, but to save. That He came in order that we may have life and have it to the fullest. That He is the giver of joy.
#4: People who have mental illness should not be allowed to become pastors or church leaders because they are too unstable and could affect the workings of the church
It is an unfortunate thing when churches deny someone who otherwise has an excellent aptitude and possess great skills from serving in the ministry because they struggle with a mental illness. We are all flawed and sinful people. We all have the ability to use the church for God’s edification or else to use it to exclude and shut out people who aren’t exactly like us. Whether or not you have a mental illness you have this potential. Churches which not only employ pastors who have mental illness but have resources available and make an effort to make self-care more of a priority actually have the potential to really help the congregants. If a congregant knows that the pastor has experienced something similar and won’t judge them they might be more willing to open up. If a congregant knows the pastor is taking medication they may feel less stigmatized. No one should be excluded from a church office on the basis of depression or anxiety. Instead, they should be seen as allies and friends. A potential great asset to the church.
#5: Everyone who is diagnosed with a mental illness at one point in their life will struggle with mental illness for the rest of their lives. They definitely need to be on medication at all times.
While it is true that certain individuals will continue to struggle with mental health issues throughout the duration of their lives, many others may experience bouts or seasons of depression or anxiety with little or no symptoms in-between. The reason for this is because not all depression is caused by chemical imbalances. Teenagers (especially women) may be more prone to depression not only because of the stresses of high school but because of the rapid growth that is taking place in them not to mention that many women’s hormones have not settled into a regular cycle yet. People may also face depression due to circumstances and life situations including loss of employment, financial difficulty, trauma, or abuse. Depression can also take place in women after the birth of a child (post-partum depression/baby blues) or as a result of a physical health problem (in which case seeing a family doctor might be in order to rule out any physical possibilities first). In these instances, often by learning how to rethink about things medication may be only needed for a very short time or not at all. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is another common illness which often has long-term negative effects on an individual but not necessarily so. PTSD affects far more than just soldiers coming back from military duty, it can also affect victims of traumatic assaults or even people who have suffered traumatic losses, accidents, or illnesses.
Another factor to consider is people who have recently been diagnosed with a long-term physical ailment especially one that is terminal. In these instances individuals may feel very hopeless and alone, but with the right support of the church and of a godly pastor and counsellor they may be able to find hope and healing once again as they learn to process their grief. It does not matter when the person was diagnosed or how old they were at the time, the affects can still be utterly traumatic on the person.
Medication has proven to be helpful for many individuals facing mental illness but at the same time it is important to weigh out the side-effects with the results. Some people are very sensitive to medication and may even find the meds make them feel worse (this is especially true of people under the age of 25). If you take medication and find that you are feeling more hopeless and alone it is important to talk with your doctor about whether you should continue or whether there are other options. Other individuals may find it more helpful to do group or individual therapy and may not require the medications in order to function at a reasonable level. In any case, it is very important to understand that the most effective form of treatment is a COMBINATION of medication AND counselling. Medication alone rarely works, it is not a magic formula. But being part of a supportive network including a loving church will increase an individual’s chance for success.
BONUS: #6: The psychiatric ward in the hospital is the “Looney bin”. All the rooms are padded and people walk around like zombies rubbing their hands together constantly and shouting obscenities. As a pastor, this is a place I should avoid. After all, I may be attacked verbally, physically, or worse.
Contrary to what you might see on TV or in movies, psychiatric wards are generally kept well-clean and with a variety of activities to keep individuals busy throughout the day. The days of institutions are over, but the mentality still sometimes lingers. This only adds shame and guilt to an individual who is already experiencing a tremendous weight in their lives. Rather than buying into these myths, I encourage pastors to get to know local doctors and counsellors and to be able to make informed decisions and referrals in the best interests of their congregants.