In June 2018, the world tragically lost two famous people—Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain—both by suicide. Both of these were people who seemingly had all the good things life could offer them and were literally household names. The world was shocked.
Two months later, megachurch pastor, Andrew Stoecklein, age 30, also took his own life —and the church world was shocked.
I was deeply troubled as I read comments and articles by Christians talking about these tragedies and how a life without Jesus is empty and meaningless. While this is 100% true, it only scratches the surface of the issues these people were facing. You see, mental illness is no respecter of persons. It touches the rich, the poor, Christian and non-Christian alike.
The topic of mental illness is being discussed more freely in the secular world than ever before. Terms like “mental health awareness”, “self-care” and “safe place” are used frequently, and as believers in Christ it would be easy to roll our eyes and throw it all in the box labelled “worldly-minded and selfish.” In fact, many times the situation does fit that label. But I firmly believe that these are legitimate terms that carry much more relevance to us than we would like to admit, and that we Christians should be talking more about this subject.
The term mental illness is a very broad term that is used to encompass a large spectrum of disorders that affect the brain and emotions. Just as the term “physical illness” may be used to describe a variety of physical conditions, the term “mental illness” can be used to describe all kinds of mental health conditions — including psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia (where the person loses touch with reality), personality disorders, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, eating disorders, ADHD, bipolar disorder, depression, and more. While all are mental illnesses, they vary greatly in the degree to which they affect a person’s daily life. It is also important to note that there is always a physical element to a mental illness—often a hormonal imbalance of some sort. Because of this physical element, medication is sometimes a necessary part of a treatment plan.
Unfortunately, when we hear the term “mental illness”, our mind automatically tends to think of the more severe, psychotic illnesses. The truth is that many people have much less severe forms of mental illnesses – but no less real and at times, very debilitating. And, just as many physical illnesses are treatable but not necessarily curable, so it is with mental illnesses. Sometimes the illness is able to be treated, and other times the illness is something one has to learn to live with.
For as long as I can remember, my dad has suffered from depression. At only 25 years old, he suffered a complete emotional breakdown and had to leave the mission field for a time. I was two years old at the time and I grew up watching as he struggled with bouts of extreme, debilitating depression. I watched as his passionate desire to win souls and to be used in God’s Kingdom wrestled against the darkness of his depression and his inability at times to even attend a church service. As a child, I remember many times that well-meaning people carried a burden for my dad and were anointed on his behalf. Much like Job’s comforters, they offered him advice such as “Just put your faith in God!” I know that they never understood why my dad continued struggling with his nerves in spite of the many prayers for his healing. Over the years, he has had good seasons and very dark seasons. But in spite of those deep, dark valleys he walked through, he was and continues to be one of the most Godly influences in my life.
I myself have had my own battles with depression and anxiety. It’s very hard to talk about at times and even now I struggle with knowing how much to share. My struggle with depression began as a teen, but it became much worse after the birth of my first child and continued to intensify with each pregnancy. While some moms with postpartum depression have a hard time bonding with their child, my struggle was primarily with irrational fears and constantly second guessing myself. Simple daily tasks were suddenly insurmountable. At times I could hardly crawl out of bed, let alone do laundry, clean the house, cook meals, and wash dishes. I loved my babies fiercely, but there were times I felt like an incredible failure. In my irrational state of mind, I honestly believed that they would be better off without me. The darkness and hopelessness that I experienced are indescribable. I felt very isolated and alone. I didn’t know who to trust. As someone involved in ministry, I felt like I had to hide behind a facade of having it all together when really I was falling apart inside. I remember wondering if there were others who struggled, but I did not know where to turn. My husband tried to help, but he simply didn’t understand much of what I was going through. Finally in desperation, I begged my doctor for help. He prescribed medication, and I also began seeing a Christian counselor. As my body began to respond to the medication, I began to have more “good days,” which in turn gave me hope that I would not feel like this forever. The medication was the first step in getting me out of the “black hole.” Little by little I was able to make changes that helped my overall health. Later I was diagnosed with hypothyroidism, which was likely a factor in a tendency toward depression.
I have learned that depression is a condition that does not have a simple fix. Even though I have never again sunk as low as I was at that time, I have continued to struggle with it over the years. I have personally felt the misunderstanding and judgment of people who don’t understand how a person can be a Christian and have a mental illness at the same time. There have been times I simply couldn’t meet the expectations of others, and I have often felt the stigma of others “handling me with kid gloves”. There have been many times I have struggled to balance my responsibilities as a pastor’s wife with my own deep valleys of depression. I have often felt like I am the only pastor’s wife who can’t do x, y, or z. But through it all, I have been the recipient of my heavenly Father’s grace and understanding over and over again. He knows and understands me – both the healthy parts of me and the broken parts of me. Over the years, I have come to terms with my own limitations and weakness. I know that God has chosen to give me these limitations and also these responsibilities. His presence walks beside me on the tough days, and when I am weak He has all the strength I need! Just as some are given physical weaknesses that they must carry through life, He has given me emotional/mental weaknesses. I choose to see them as a gift that draws me closer to Him rather than as a disability.
I believe that the reason we struggle to address these topics is that trying to help someone with a mental illness is not as simple and straightforward as helping someone with a physical illness. First of all, many people who battle mental illnesses don’t “look” sick. But we have to realize that even though they may not exhibit physical symptoms of being sick, they truly are just as sick as someone with any other physical ailment such as diabetes or a broken bone. Just as someone with a physical illness does not choose to be sick, someone who has a mental illness doesn’t choose to be sick.
Secondly, I believe that Christians are uncomfortable and unsure with how to handle people with mental illnesses because it treads into gray areas. We have a hard time fitting them and their behavior into our neat little boxes of right versus wrong. All mental disorders have spiritual, mental and physical components. It’s very hard for us to separate behaviors that are a result of sin and behaviors that are a result of a broken or faulty brain.
Take, for example, an elderly person who is suffering from dementia. I have known of numerous saints who have served God for many years but suffered from dementia in their later years. Many times they have been known to say and do things that they never would have done before the disease took hold of their minds. Does this mean they were no longer Christians? Absolutely not! I have more confidence in our loving heavenly Father than to believe that! He knows their minds – both when they are whole and healthy and when they are broken.
Unfortunately, the stigma of mental illness remains very real in our church circles. If it is talked about, it is in very vague terms. If someone is struggling, it is kept very “hush-hush.” Someone with a mental illness is treated as an anomaly when in fact, almost half (46.4) percent of all adults in the US will experience a mental illness in their lifetime. That is almost every other person! That means that if it’s not you, it’s the person next to you that is suffering — and many times silently. If you are involved in ministry, you will certainly come across someone who is struggling with some form of mental illness. If you want to help them, here are a few things you need to remember.
Don’t try to “fix” them. Instead, be present in their lives. They need someone to walk through the darkness with them. They need to know that they are not alone and that there is hope. Because there is such a stigma in our culture and in our church circles, those who do have a mental illness are afraid to admit it. This causes them to feel isolated and alone — which in turn only serves to exacerbate the problem. But there is so much comfort in knowing that there are many others who also struggle.
Offer them hope. Help them to understand that there will be better days. This will be especially meaningful to them if you have experienced something similar yourself.
In trying to offer hope, don’t pretend to understand if you don’t. Don’t offer advice unless they ask you for it. Instead, listen and ask how you can help. Encourage them to seek professional help from a Christian counselor, but don’t say things like,
“Just think positively”
“Choose to be happy.”
“You just need to____________ (get out, pray, trust God, etc.) more.”
“You need to stop relying on your feelings.”
While there are bits of truths in the above words of advice, to someone with a mental illness, this communicates an attitude of flippancy and tells them that you truly don’t understand them or what they are going through. I remember well a dear Christian lady telling me that her solution was to count her blessings and look for someone else to help. While that advice was well-intended and did have some validity, her quick, trite answer demonstrated to me that she did not understand the depth of my depression and left me feeling rather cynical.
Understand and respect their need to withdraw from social gatherings and even church. Many times mental illness has seasons that are more difficult than others. If you notice they are missing from church or normal activities please don’t judge them and dechristianize them for not being in church! Let them know that you noticed that they are going through a rough patch and that you are praying for them. Extend the same grace and understanding that you would to someone suffering from a physical illness who can’t make it to church.
Let them know that you care about them and are there to support them. Send text messages or cards with Scriptures of encouragement such as Psalm 34:18, Deuteronomy 31:6, II Corinthians 12:9-10 and Lamentations 3:22-25. (Romans 8:26 has been especially meaningful to me — it is such a comfort to know that the Holy Spirit not only walks beside me through the darkest of days, but He is praying for me!) Most of all, letting them know that you care — that you see that they are struggling, but are not judging them will help more than anything.
I believe that God wants us to do our best to extend the same love and grace to those suffering with mental illness as we do to those who are suffering physically. Maybe we hesitate because we do not understand the problem or know how to help. Or maybe it is that we are afraid that we will say the wrong thing or even make matters worse. But we can never go wrong by showing love and concern. If you don’t know what would be helpful, ask; they will tell you. But to do nothing is not an option. Now, let’s go and be His hands and be His feet binding and healing the wounds of the brokenhearted.
- Stanford, Matthew S. Grace for the Afflicted: Viewing Mental Illness Through the Eyes of Faith. Colorado Springs: Paternoster, 2008. Print.