The Church’s Struggle with Mental Illness

Before moving forward with this blog, I would like to clarify that there is a distinction between the church and Christ, the latter of which my faith is in. And that currently I am in a church that does their best to embrace me even if they don’t fully understand my affliction.

Some churches still struggle to view mental illness as anything but an existential thought of one’s moral/spiritual compass.

At sixteen, I experienced this first hand in an evangelical church, it was the beginning of my first bout with severe depression. I tried to be happy … I went to church and followed their rules ….I prayed for their joy, their fruits of the spirit and I believed. I tried their prescription for me:

  • pray more, differently, with scripture in it, on my knees
  • stop sinning
  • volunteer my time
  • take communion, tithe
  • repent, confess
  • just put on a happy face,
  • have more faith, read my Bible more,
  • accept Christ’s healing

I NEEDED to believe. Nobody needs to believe more than the broken, nobody knows belief until their broken.

And while well intentioned church leaders questioned my faith, the quantity and quality of prayer and self –sacrifice, I was in ever, increasing deep despair. They seemed to reason that my depression was a result of non-repentant sin, thus I was causing my own depression. Now, at forty I have enough life experience to reason my way out of that box, but at sixteen I wasn’t equipped to handle this sort of bad theology.

It caused me years of continued and unneeded struggle, within myself and in my approach to wellness. Counseling was considered a last ditch option, and if it was to be done by a pastor on staff, not a licensed therapist. I value pastors for their theological knowledge and their pastor care, however I believe without the proper training/education they can do more damage than good.

Medication was also frowned upon, and so I spent years trying nutraceutials; 5HTP, St.John’s Wort, the range of B Vitamins, all to no avail. Finally after six years of this journey, that had more to do with my brain chemistry than my spiritual life, I met a Christian therapist that helped change this wrong perspective and put me on the right path. I am eternally thankful for her and others that do exist within Christianity and the walls of the church that understand.

So, what plagues some of our churches when it comes to mental illness? I would say, causation and stigma … old concepts that for much of the world have been distinguished but are still lagging somewhat behind in some churches.

Causation is an ugly road to travel, it leaves a lot of carnage in its path, and it casts blame. The church does exhibit leeway for causation for that which it comprehends. Obesity causes heart disease, but we never hear, please remove yourself from the potluck line or the church will not be able to visit you while hospitalized from your quadruple bypass surgery. Any smokers here? Sorry, there will be no offering taken to assist you with your medical bills for COPD. Alcoholics … when you have cirrhosis of the liver we will not pray for you, sorry. The church can relate to those struggles, we’ve all had too many doughnuts, toked up during college, sipped from a boisterous Cabernet and then found ourselves embracing the cold, hard porcelain truth. But there is a lack of understanding of mental health issues often in many churches.

In mental illness, there is causation, but it needs to be assigned responsibly; it’s brain chemistry, neurotransmitters, genetics, and circumstances … causes that are not sinful in nature.

Dear Church,

Why must we with mental health issues hide out? Despite the fact that it’s not just your congregations that suffer from this illness, it’s not just you’re laymen who are somewhat less theologically astute. In fact some of your pastors, theological professors, Vicars, elders, are bumping into each other in the pew with shit grins on their faces because they can’t admit they struggle with mental illness, because they cannot let you see them. They don’t want to be fired, held spiritual hostage, have their faith questioned, they don’t want their families embarrassed.

This illness is different in that it affects our cognition and ability to see ourselves as we are. We are already struggling from an eternal perspective. We question our salvation, God, our desire for life, it’s a heartfelt existential crisis … and we can’t think our way out of it, any more than someone with cancer can think their way out of cancer and into remission.

Please Church understand, we’re not stupid, we don’t want this, our neurotransmitters are functionally incorrectly at the current moment and we could use your help. We desire to live, we desire to have our paradise lost renewed, we want to find comfort within your arms, we want to evangelize with you for Christ … and some of us will do it in ugly sick places you don’t want to go. Please embrace us, accept us, send us out in faith knowing that Christ can work through our brokenness, some of our wrists have bled like Christ’s … we get it .. We’ve almost died to our illnesses, please let us live in peace … not just God’s peace, but yours.

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