I love my church. I love my pastor. I love my faith. I love Jesus. Writing this article has absolutely nothing to do with my love of Christianity. It has everything to do with the stigmatization of mental illness in the church and how it is affecting struggling Christians.
I’ve grown up in the church, all while struggling with anxiety and depression. Do you want to guess how many sermons I’ve heard about mental health? Zero. Zilch. Nada. This isn’t due to Jesus being silent on the topic; it’s due to the lack of understanding of the church. So, during this blog post, we will be examining the mental health stigma in the church and what God says about the issue.
“Mental pain is less dramatic than physical pain, but it is more common and also more hard to bear. The frequent attempt to conceal mental pain increases the burden. It is easier to say ‘my tooth is aching’ than to say ‘my heart is broken’.
The History of Stigma
Believe it or not, stigma was a problem before anyone knew what mental illness was. In ancient history, Egyptians, Greeks, Indians, and Romans believed that mental illness was a punishment from a higher power or a result of demonic activity.
Before we get into that, however, let’s look at the history of the word, stigma.
The word, stigma, comes from the Greek word, which is spelled the same way. When you search the meaning of this word, you’ll find that it means “a mark made by pricking or branding.”
This is because, in ancient Greece, a stigma was a mark branded on slaves and criminals. To rephrase, people in ancient Greece struggling with mental disorders like anxiety, depression, or schizophrenia, were considered criminals and slaves. They were beaten, thrown into prison, and tortured.
As we entered the Middle Ages, the punishment of the mentally ill didn’t improve. In the Middle Ages, people with mental illness(es) were believed to be suffering God’s wrath because of demonic possession and were either burned at the stake or thrown into prison and chained up.
These prisoners were finally released during the Enlightenment, but their future relatives were met with the dreadful force known as the Nazi regime. Hitler and his followers heavily preyed upon the disabled and mentally ill, and they were some of the first to be killed. This practice was called the “T-4” or “Euthanasia” program, and its purpose was to kill the “nonessential” or “useless” society.
As we progressed as a nation and as a world, mental illness was researched and treatments were created. However, even in our modern era, stigma still finds a way to show itself.
Unfortunately, a breeding ground for stigma lies inside the walls of the homes of Christians.
Today, the word stigma is used when referring to discrimination against people with different social characteristics, such as race, health, intelligence, etc.
Presently, stigma can be seen all around. Judgment from others, subtle or outright comments or suggestions, or disbelief of the seriousness of mental disorders are a few different ways stigma creeps into our lives. The danger of this stigma is that it makes people feel ashamed of their illnesses and leads to them not getting treatment.
“In a survey of over 1700 adults in the UK, Crisp et al. (2000) found that (1) the most commonly held belief was that people with mental health problems were dangerous – especially those with schizophrenia, alcoholism and drug dependence, (2) people believed that some mental health problems such as eating disorders and substance abuse were self inflicted, and (3) respondents believed that people with mental health problems were generally hard to talk to. People tended to hold these negative beliefs regardless of their age, regardless of what knowledge they had of mental health problems, and regardless of whether they knew someone who had a mental health problem.”
-Mental Health and Stigma, Psychology Today https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/why-we-worry/201308/mental-health-stigma
The Church’s Role
Just as personality traits and cultures pass from generation to generation, the church passes beliefs to the next congregation, the next Sunday school class, the next youth service. Our core beliefs, that God saved us through the death and resurrection of His Son, Jesus, should never change. But, when it comes to mental health, are our leaders speaking accurately of mental illness?
If you grew up in the church while simultaneously living with mental struggles like anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, or any other form of mental illness, you know that some of the most judgmental people call themselves Christian. Don’t get me wrong, I love my faith and my church! But, I have encountered many Christians with very simple views.
These Christians have offered their advice, suggestions, and questions. They often look something like this:
“Just trust God.”
“Have you prayed about it?”
“Read your Bible.”
“What is there to be anxious about? God has a plan.”
“This is a result of (insert sin here).”
Do any of these sound familiar?
The reason that these questions bother me isn’t because I don’t love God. It bothers me because they insinuate that (1) I don’t love God enough or trust him, (2) they invalidate serious disorders, and (3) they place blame on the people suffering from these disorders.
I’ve even heard theories from people who 100% believe that anxiety and depression are caused by you allowing the devil to infiltrate your brain. I’ve talked to people who continuously tell me to pray as if I don’t do it already.
In the religious community, medication and therapy are viewed as giving in to the world and not trusting God with your needs. I’d love to write a whole other article on treatment shaming. A lot of Christians have such narrow views of God’s power and assume the only way he helps the mentally ill is by completely healing them. I can tell you first hand that God also works through medications, psychiatrists, and therapists. God has plans and we can’t limit our perception of Him. God raises therapists and psychiatrists for a reason. He helps scientists find new medications. He doesn’t always heal us- sometimes He just walks through our storms with us.
So, we see that Christians as individuals have no hesitancy stating their opinions on mental illness. So, what is the church as a whole doing to help or worsen mental health? Well, that’s the thing- they aren’t.
As I mentioned, I have never heard a sermon preached on mental health. I have never seen churches raising money by hosting psychiatric fundraisers. I have never heard a leader pray specifically for those suffering from mental illness. I’m not saying that there aren’t churches that tackle this subject, but it seems to be a trend not to.
The church, I believe, is either scared of judgment or hasn’t fully comprehended the severity of the mental health of the world. Pastors speak about love, forgiveness, fellowship, sins, Satan, and evil. But, no matter how many people need it, mental health just isn’t mentioned. We are ignoring the fact that 1 in 5 people struggle with mental illness. We are avoiding the discussion that teenagers and adults are committing suicide every day. We are so caught up in the joy of Jesus’ sacrifice and the thought of going to Heaven one day that we are forgetting those that still need Jesus and treatment.
My therapist said something once that stuck with me while we were talking about Christians’ disbelief or uncertainty about mental illness: “It’s funny they don’t believe how bad anxiety can be when Christianity is all about believing in what you can’t see.”
One reason the lack of discussion in church and the judgment from Christians concerning mental illness bothers me so much is because people go to church when they’re hurting. Some people go as their last resort. Some people come to church to find support from others in a judgment-free zone. People go to church to seek help, love, and compassion. How do you think they feel when they are met with judgment, stigma, and avoidance?
How do you think a suicidal person feels when they walk into church, trying one last time to find some kind of hope, only to leave feeling guilty for their struggles?
This is what I’m saying: the church must first accept that mental illness is a serious problem, and try their best to be welcoming and non-judgmental, just like Jesus.
What Does God Say?
“Beware in your prayers, above everything else, of limiting God, not only by unbelief, but by fancying that you know what He can do. Expect unexpected things above all that we ask or think.”
I fully believe in the healing power of God. In fact, I believe that He will heal me. I believe He will everyone who believes. But, some of us are going to have to wait for Heaven. This blog post in no way doubts his greatness or love. It only doubts the corrupt beliefs of confused people. The main belief in the church is that the only way God will help is by healing.
The 4 things I think we should cover are (1) Context of scripture, (2)Jesus’ experience with emotion, (3) God’s will and timing, and (4) Healing.
Context of scripture
The Lord tells us countless times in the Bible “Do not fear.” This is reassuring and comforting, but the context of these verses in different situations should be considered.
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?”
Here, Jesus is telling us “do not be anxious about my willingness to provide for you.” He isn’t saying “do not develop an anxiety disorder because it is disobedient.”
Having mental disorders is not disobedient. Doubting God’s power is disobedient. Scriptures like these refer to typical anxiety, not medical anxiety that we can’t control.
Having emotions is okay.
Having negative emotions is okay.
You aren’t any less of a Christian for having mental illnesses.
Jesus experienced emotion
We must remember that Jesus experienced every temptation and emotion known to mankind. We recall his righteous anger in the temple courts, the way he wept at the grave of Lazarus, the love He feels for His children, or most relevantly, his severe anxiety in the Garden of Gethsemane.
As Jesus was preparing for His crucifixion, He and His disciples went up to the Mount of Olives to pray:
“He withdrew about a stone’s throw beyond them, knelt down and prayed, Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him. And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.”
Jesus was in anguish. He was scared. The King of Kings was scared and prayed to the Father to let him pass the cup, but yielded to God’s will, nonetheless. In the midst of his anxiety, He “sweat like drops of blood,” referring to a medical condition called hematidrosis. Hematidrosis occurs under severe physical and emotional stress when the fight or flight system causes capillary blood vessels to rupture and excrete blood through the sweat glands.
So, yeah, Jesus experienced anxiety. Therefore anxiety isn’t sinful; the Savior of the World dealt with it. Just as Jesus experienced a great deal of hardships, we are promised that we will, too. We aren’t free of suffering because of our faith. Jesus warned us of this:
“I have told you these things so that in you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
A very important part of Jesus’ prayer that night was “not my will be done, but yours be done.” This brings me to my next point: God has a will for your life, and sometimes we simply can’t pass the cup. No matter how badly we want to. He knew before you were born everything you would ever struggle with, but He also knew that His will would be fulfilled and His timing is best.
God’s will for some peoples’ lives may allow more heartbreak, sorrow, anguish, and brokenness than others. We simply have to trust, for God’s Word tells us that our ways are not His ways. Our timing isn’t His timing.
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,”
declares the Lord.
“As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
Many Christian these days succumb to the belief “name it and claim it!” This simply isn’t accurate, because you can’t name and claim something outside of God’s will. You can’t force God to do something. You can, however, praise him through every hill and valley. He has a detailed plan for your life, after all.
“Jesus replied, ‘You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.’ ”
– John 13:7
“He said to them: ‘It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by His own authority.'”
The healing power of God is fully present and evident in our world. He heals those whose healing is in His will. He is beyond merciful and loving, and one day each one of us will experience His healing hand when He comes back. Some experience it sooner than others, but one day in Heaven we will all be free of sorrow and pain.
Some Christians who have been lucky enough to live without mental illness will tell you to pray and you will be healed. This works for some people, don’t get me wrong; prayer is powerful. But this belief insinuates that everyone who asks will be healed, and that’s not true. If it were, there would be no illness, pain, disease, or death in the world.
No, God doesn’t promise to heal us right when we ask. Instead, He promises to give us strength and to love us throughout our lives.
“So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”
This is what irks me: Christians limit their view of God’s ability and plans by assuming the only way He conquers is by healing. And how do you think people who aren’t being healed feel when their prayers aren’t working? Like they are inferior. This may lead to guilt and a worsening of symptoms. Do you see how this works? The trickle-down effect of stigma?
Here is the truth: God doesn’t only work by healing. He works by giving us strength. By making up for our downfalls. He improves our mental state by providing the right medicine. He works through therapists. He works by providing strong support systems. He raises psychiatric professionals and reveals discoveries. He may not heal our ailments, but he patches up our brokenness and makes us whole again. This time, with a purpose, a passion, a thankfulness for life. He may not heal right away, but He most definitely improves and provides.
Look back on the different verses in this blog post. Do you notice how none of them promise immediate healing? How there isn’t a single verse telling us that anxiety is sinful? No, but each one either teaches us about the Lord’s ways and promises or praises Him for his presence and strength.
“God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.”
“He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.”