Depression. Anxiety. PTSD. Bi-polar. People are complex beings, and sometimes things in our body, in our brain, go wrong. Like any disease, these conditions need to be acknowledged, treated, and respected. Just like cancer, mental illnesses should be treated as a ‘big deal’.
But in many many churches, and honestly many communities in general, mental illness is treated like the flu, something to get over and put behind you. And worse than that, some churches even treat mental illness as a ‘lack of faith’ or literally demonized. That is to say, some teach you that mental illness is a literal demon inhabiting your body and needs to be exorcised.
Even if it is not to that extreme, many – maybe even most – churches don’t consider mental health conditions to be “Christian” conditions. If you have depression or anxiety or are bi-polar or other conditions people in the church, and especially church leaders are more than ready to tell you that you aren’t a Christian and you need to ‘get right’ with God to get rid of your illness.
I am no expert in mental health. The only thing I’m an expert on is my own health. I have crippling depression. That’s not the ‘medical’ term, but for me, it is literally crippling. I’ve had depression for as long as I can remember. I’ve struggled with it my entire life. On more than one occasion it has almost literally killed me. With support and medication and the help of my doctors it is mostly under control, but just barely enough for me to be a functional adult.
Fortunately, when I had a church family, and an awesome preacher who I still consider a dear friend even though he’s retired and moved home, they were very understanding and supportive. (That church has since closed, but its closure had nothing to do with how they treated people.) However, doing what I do, running an online community, and what I did before, manager of a Christian retail store, I have met hundreds of people that were not supportive and understanding.
One experience, in particular, stands out in my memory.
I was at work and we had just done a ‘reset’ of the store. (Re-arranging shelves and sections and hanging new signs to give the store a ‘new’ look.) It was during the holidays, which is high stress to start with, and after working overnight and not having slept in about 48 hours, I fell into a dark place. I didn’t have the energy to even bathe. I slept in my uniform and my wife had to drop me at work. I could barely move that day.
One of my regulars came in. He was a great guy and pastor (preacher? Elder?) of one of the local pentecostal churches. I considered him a friend and we talked often about our churches and family and work.
But that day things got… weird. He asked me what was wrong and I told him I was struggling a bit with my depression, but I would get through it.
It was like a switch flipped in him somewhere and he went into exorcist mode. He put his hands on my shoulders and started speaking (praying?) in tongues. Loudly. In my crowded store. At one point he was pushing down hard on my shoulders like he was trying to get me to kneel or something. I didn’t, I just stood there, not knowing what else to do. He stopped the tongues, patted me hard on the arms, and left without buying anything.
And I never saw him again.
He didn’t empathize with me as a person, he didn’t ask how he could help or anything else. I don’t know why he never returned to my store after being in there almost every day for three years., but I can only assume it had something to do with his experience with me and my admission of depression.
That’s an extreme example, but I’d heard all the other cliche’s about mental illness from others. “Your faith isn’t strong enough”, “If you love God enough you won’t have any mental illness”, “You need to get that demon off your back”, “You know, all you have to do is claim wellness and you’ll bet well”, and on and on and on.
I am in no way accusing all churches and church people of thinking this way, as I said before my own church was honestly very good with this issue and many of us felt loved and supported while dealing with our diseases, but not enough churches are like that. Too many churches refuse to acknowledge mental illnesses with this same tone as other diseases like cancer. While someone in the hospital being treated with chemotherapy might get a visit from the elders and be prayed over, someone in the hospital being treated for depression will never get the same attention. Too often those suffering from mental illness are ignored, swept aside, hidden, and ignored.
Some studies have shown that suicidal ideation among ‘religious’ is higher than non-religious people. Why? Why would that be the case? The only explanation is the way the church, in general, treats mental illness.
So what can be done?
Again, I’m not an expert. I don’t have good, clinical answers on how to address the problem in our churches, but I can offer advice.
First, talk. Talk without shame or fear of being stigmatized. Be honest, be real. “I have this problem and I need your support”. Ask for prayer, even if you know how it might turn into an exorcism or something. Be honest about any treatment you’re getting.
Second, find others who are also struggling and make friends. Maybe even start a support group. In any church, no matter the size, I guarantee you are not alone. There are others, always. Organize. Have meetings. It doesn’t have to be any formal program, in fact, I would say DON’T make it a formal program. Just get together for coffee and donuts or tacos. Just BE for each other.
Above all, If you are having problems, GET HELP. Don’t let your church shame you into not going to a “secular” medical professional. Some churches offer counseling services or might refer you to a ‘Christian’ counselor, and if your preacher or someone else is a licensed counselor, then great! go to them, but in most places there are no laws or rules or professional board that certifies the abilities of so-called “Christian” counselors. In most places in the US, anyone can call themselves one and set up a practice even though they have never had any schooling or training. And that’s a serious danger.
I want to STRONGLY encourage you to talk to your doctor. They can help you get the right treatment you need and they or another professional can prescribe medication that will help. Pills are nothing to be ashamed of. You have a headache you take Tylenol. You have depression, you take Prozac (or another medicine).
As I draw this post to a close, let me just offer to be someone who will listen. As I’ve said before, I’m not an expert, but I have my own experiences and my own struggles and I will be happy to talk with you on chat or email if you’d like. My contact information is in the ‘about’ section of the facebook page.