January 25 is Bell “Let’s Talk” Day, a program that tries to break the silence surrounding mental health issues. We at R3 thought this would be a great opportunity to take some time and discuss mental health in the church.
The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health says that approximately one in five Canadians experience a mental health or addiction problem in any given year. That’s a huge number of us, and we can assume that means that there are a lot of people dealing with mental health issues in our communities and in our church pews. Yet many suffer in silence or even in shame, afraid to voice their need because they will be misunderstood or judged.
Here is my story: I’ve personally dealt with depression. I have been fortunate in that I was able to cope without medication, but many are not able to do that. Despite the fact that my depression was not as deep as what some people experience, it was one of the worst times of my life. Many days, I felt like I had fallen into a dark pit, and I could hardly see the light. I would cry all the time: I cried at work, in the bathrooms at school, on the bus, and in church. I prayed and prayed, but there were days when life felt so dark and I could not imagine it ever getting lighter, and I would go to sleep begging God to take my life overnight so that I wouldn’t have to wake up and do it all again. Depression is exhausting. It is not just ‘feeling sad’ or ‘having a low patch’. It is a serious health problem.
Yet in the depths of my depression, I did not talk about my feelings at church. Why? In part because I’ve also seen how we often unknowingly shame those with mental illness in our churches. I’ve seen “depression” on a list of “sins” in a Christian publication. I’ve heard people time and time again press others to be positive and cast their cares on the Lord, as though illness is something that can be overcome through grit and good feelings. Part of it was that my pit was so dark that I couldn’t see an exit, so I stopped reaching for a hand to pull me out. There were months and months when I would cry through church services, which I often attended alone due to my husband’s work. Sometimes I would come hoping that finally, someone would see that I was struggling and ask me if I was okay, but no one did. I wept through church alone. Only once did someone pray with me, and that was a person that I knew well. I don’t say this to shame the church, but to point out that there are probably others like me who are yearning for someone to see their tears.
Despite lots of evidence to the contrary, many still do not see mental illness as ‘real’ illness. When someone has a broken leg, we come alongside them. We bake casseroles and offer rides, because we can see with our eyes that this person is sick. Mental illness, on the other hand, often gets treated like a character defect that has to be worked through. We would never tell someone with diabetes or cancer to just think more positively and pray about their illness; we would take that person to the doctor, and yet we do that with depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses.
Please do not misunderstand me. Prayer is real and it is important. However, the book of 1 John says “let’s not merely say that we love each other; let us show the truth by our actions” (1 John 3:18, NLT). Also, how will we know who needs our prayers when we foster an environment where those who are hurting are afraid to come forward. While we do pray for one another, we need to have open eyes to see how we can support those dealing with mental illness and show them love.
So how can we do better at loving those with mental illnesses? What does this mean for us as a church? Well, for starters, it means we can’t ignore mental illness or sweep it under the rug.
- It means talking about mental illness, because it is real and it is happening. If we never talk about it, then we perpetuate the idea that “good Christians” never deal with depression, or anxiety, or other illnesses.
- It means listening before jumping inserting ourselves into someone else’s situation. The truth is, we do not know exactly how they feel or what they are going through, and sometimes the best thing we can say is, “I am so sorry you are going through this. I love you. How can I help?”
- It means having open eyes to the people who might be struggling alongside us. That crying person in the pew might be looking for someone to tell her that her life is worth living. That man whose wife recently passed away may need someone to check in on him. We need to act like the family that we are.
- It means respecting people’s confidences and not gossiping about their illnesses or sharing personal details with others without their permission… even if it’s for a prayer request.
- It means watching our language. It’s so easy to say, “I was so depressed when my team lost” or “I’m so neat, it’s like I have OCD” or “I had a panic attack when I realized I was late for work.” These phrases may be common in our culture, but they cheapen the experiences of our sisters and brothers who are really dealing with depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, and anxiety disorder.
- It means following up with new moms who are looking haggard and lost instead of saying, “Enjoy every minute.” Post-partum depression, post-partum anxiety, and post-partum psychosis affect lots and lots of women every year, and many of them suffer alone. In today’s transient world, many young couples live far away from their parents, aunts, uncles, and grandparents – the people who traditionally would have pitched in to assist after a baby is born. We as the church need to step in and ensure that new parents are coping and help out when we can.
- It means supporting the families of those struggling with mental illness, giving them space to talk about the burden they face, and offering them prayer and love without judgment.
If you are reading this and you are hurting, please know that you are loved. Please also know that there is help.
Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.