Mental Health and the Church
In 2013, the church community mourned the loss of Rick and Kay Warren’s son, Matthew, who had taken his own life amidst a struggle with mental illness. In turn, God used the Warrens to convey the significance of the church stepping in to help those who struggle in this area which began an important conversation about mental health in the life of the church. Sadly, in the past, there has been a negative stigma regarding mental health and those who seek therapy, as if those who know and love Jesus are shielded from hurt, pain, and depression. Yet, I believe that we can all struggle with thoughts of depression, anxiety, unworthiness, doubt, suicide and so much more at some point and time in our life. Therefore, it matters how we in the church walk with those suffering in this way.
In order to understand how we can move forward in grace, we first need to know where we have been.
Historically speaking, the church has typically handled mental health in one of three ways: ignore it (silence), treat it as a spiritual dissonance, or refer it to a professional and be rid of “that issue”. Taking them one by one:
1) When we ignore it, we send the message that Jesus doesn’t care about our suffering. We send the message that our pain and hurt doesn’t matter when in reality everything matters to Jesus. Suppressing your own pain leads to physical and emotional damage on yourself. When the church ignores mental health it is not being obedient to God’s call in Colossians 3:12.
"Therefore, as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience."
We are first, holy and dearly loved, but then we are called to journey in life with others and offer them compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Ignoring them or their struggles is not the answer.
2) Secondly, I cannot tell you the number of times that I have heard people say, “well, if you just pray more or truly release it to God, then you’ll be healed.” These empty platitudes are saying that the person is lacking an amount of faith because they have not recovered or been healed from the mental illness. “Mental illnesses are real, treatable, and manageable conditions caused by genetic, biological, or environmental factors or some combination of the three. To withhold or discourage medical and psychological intervention is as cruel as to deny treatment for a broken arm or a case of diabetes” (http://qideas.org/articles/mental-illness-what-is-the-churchs-role/). Therefore, though having faith is important for the journey, it is okay to give yourself and others permission to seek the help they need and then walk with them through it.
3) Lastly, when we simply refer someone to a counselor and don’t walk alongside them, we can come across as passing them off. It is important that we create a partnership of journeying with others. We must learn from professionals how to walk alongside those who have suffered from mental illness and trauma. If we don’t, we run the risk of causing further damage. For instance, in college when I had first begun my therapy journey and was filled with moments of vulnerability, I would share what I was going through with others around me. Painfully, I remember losing friendships because they were overwhelmed by my story and didn’t know how to walk with me in it. In those moments, I felt unworthy of love, grace, and compassion. While I know those feelings are not true, for some it can resound as a statement of: “if this Christian person doesn’t care, then God must not care about me in this”.
Essentially, though the church has not always done well in this arena, I believe we are invited to deeper levels of freedom. I believe that the more we talk about it, the more the negative stigma of mental health and therapy can be shattered. It is important to break our own silence and to break the silence of the church because God truly cares about our suffering. I believe that our experiences, good and bad, allow us to connect with others as well. This partnership between therapy and hope in Jesus allows for understanding and healing in the process of overcoming.