“There is a major problem with the way that the Christian community views mental disorders. No, it is not my choice to struggle with what I struggle with. No, I am not experiencing a psychotic break because I am forgetting that God loves me or because I am just a negative, pessimistic person. I have structural differences and chemical irregularities in my brain. Trust me, I know God loves me. However, mental disorders are not guided by rationality. Please stop telling me and others that we just need to ‘believe God loves us’ and ‘cast our anxieties on him.’ If that could have cured me from schizophrenia, I would have done it a long time ago.”
This quote comes from a post on Wheaton Confessions, a page, run by an anonymous administrator, that serves as a popular forum for students, alumni, and the rest of the world to discuss a multitude of topics that relate to Wheaton College, a private Evangelical Christian institution just 30 miles west of Chicago. Through an anonymous SurveyMonkey link, anyone can pose a question or comment that will remain anonymous for all page visitors to see.
The quote at the top of this page, which was posted on February 19, 2014, serves as an example of a very large topic that is often hidden under the pews of the church and inside of the people sitting on them. According to the National Alliance of Mental Illness, one in four American adults experience mental illness in a given year, and one in 17 – about 13.6 million people – live with a serious illness such as schizophrenia, major depression or bipolar disorder. Across the globe, more than 450 million people suffer from mental illness.
The church is no stranger to addressing global issues, and its voice is loud. Why, then, hasn’t the Christian community gained its voice to discuss an illness that affects so many of its members?
Living In the Shadow of the Stigma
To begin learning about the origins of stigma, one must go global and search the original language of the Bible. The origins of the word can be found in the ancient Greek vocabulary – “stigma” comes from roots that mean something along the lines of making a point or a mark. Some speculate that the word was originally used in designating tattoos, and in ancient times, it did not have a particularly negative connotation. The word can be referenced in the New Testament, when Paul writes, “I bear on my body the stigmata of Christ” (Gal. 6:17). The word gained more negativity when it appeared in Latin, where it can be defined as denoting a mark of shame or degradation, a mark placed on criminals and slaves so that they could be identified if they ran away.
While the word “stigma” was not used in relation to mental illness in ancient Grecian times, mental illness had certainly been identified. Mental illness was undesirable, and people who had a mental illness were considered mad. Madness equated to shame, and that shame of ancient Grecian times has spread worldwide and over thousands of years to this very moment in time.
Whether it is found in the media, in a book, or discussed among friends, people with mental illnesses are often looked at as different, and even dangerous. Different mental illnesses come with different levels of stigma. In their book Strategic Conflict, authors Daniel Canary and Sandra Lakey state that stigma associated with mental illness can stem from a person’s fear of confrontation and conflict, two factors that can often accompany people with a mental illness who cannot, or have not yet mastered control over their triggers and episodes.
As Amy Simpson writes in her article in Christianity Today, sometimes people with a mental illness can behave in ways that other people cannot make sense of or relate to. Severe depression can leave someone in bed all day, unable to perform the most basic of tasks such as getting up and brushing their teeth. Psychotic disorders may leave some people hearing voices or seeing things that do not exist. Sometimes, people with mental illness hurt themselves, or others. Someone may appear to be doing well, but their mental illness can cause them to dip down just as quickly. “People who have mental illness can be a difficult group to reach, as their symptoms, efforts to cope with pain, and even side effects from medication can cause behaviors that make us uncomfortable or even alarm us,” Simpson writes.
Simpson lists numerous ways that Christians can react when they see symptoms of mental illnesses, and the common responses that accompany them. Christians can be quick to assume that the person with a mental illness is simply being selfish – that they simply need to trust in God more. Some communities reject individuals with mental illness, and other times, Christians can try to fix the problem through prayer and Bible reading, or giving a bit of advice that comes from little to no experience on the topic.
Prayer Is Not the Only Answer
To gauge where the church stands on the grounds of mental illness, Nashville-based LifeWay Research conducted a survey in September of 2013 with the hopes to see how Americans are responding to the topic and treatment of mental health.
“A third of Americans – and nearly half of evangelical, fundamentalist, or born-again Christians – believe prayer and Bible study alone can overcome serious mental illness,” writes Bob Smietana of LifeWay NewsRoom. Smietana writes that Ed Stetzer, president of LifeWay Research, has stated concern over the fact that some Christians may see mental illness as a character flaw rather than the medical condition that it is. Stetzer mentions that a key part of mental illness is the word “illness.” According to the survey and as quoted in Smietana’s article, 35 percent of the participants agreed with the statement “With just Bible study and prayer, ALONE, people with serious mental illness like depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia could overcome mental illness.”
Participant responses were split by factors such as faith and age: Out of all the participants who agreed that prayer can overcome mental illness, 48 percent were Evangelical, fundamentalist, or born-again Christians. Fifty percent of 18-29 year olds stated that prayer and Bible study was the answer, while less than 30 percent of participants aged 55-64 stated this as the solution. Out of all the participants, 51 percent stated that someone close to them had experienced mental illness.
While many participants stated that prayer and Bible study is the solution to problems related to mental illness, 54 percent of the participants said that churches should do more to prevent suicide. When focusing on the evangelical, fundamentalist or born-again Christian survey participants, the number jumped to 64 percent.
Prayer is certainly a helpful tool in combatting any problem. However, prayer alone is not the answer for everyone, including those who belong to the church.
Every 40 seconds, someone in the world dies by suicide.
In the spring of 2013, Matthew Warren, the son of bestselling author and pastor Rick Warren, took his own life after dealing with a mental illness throughout his lifetime. Warren’s story serves as one of many. According to the World Health Organization, more than 800,000 people die from suicide each year. Suicide is among the top 20 leading causes of death globally, and it ranks among the top 10 leading causes of death in the United States. According to a 2013 BBC article, depression was ranked at number two as a global cause of disability.
Raise Your Voice
Talking about mental illness is not an easy thing to do, or so the world has proven. People are scared to admit that they have a mental illness because of the stigma that lingers, and the consequences – such as losing a job or a friend – that could result in talking about their illness. However, thanks to 21st century technology, dialogue has begun to happen on the internet, and the perks of this method of communication include the ability to be anonymous. Regardless of where the writer or producer is from, this content is globally accessible, with language being the only barrier. While Christian blogs, chat rooms, or YouTube videos that discuss mental illness are scarce, they’re not extinct.
If you google “My Mental Illness & Christian Faith,” you’ll find a blogger named Chantal who has devoted a lot of time to writing about her recovery from Borderline Personality Disorder and Bipolar Disorder. In the “About me” and “My story” sections of the blog page, the Chantal writes, “I wish to share my lived experience in order to offer hope to others suffering and searching. This blog is also a means for me to express myself as a Christian living with mental illness.” The blogger continues to write, “Sharing openly our stories or parts of our lives to others is not an easy thing. However if we are to speak up about mental health issues, we must dare to take on the challenge. I have chosen to advocate concerning my mental illness in the hopes that it can provide some comfort and knowledge to others.”
Chantal also explains that, throughout her life, she has drifted to and from the Christian faith. However, as of 2012, the blogger reached a turning point. “…I gained much insight into my illness and have finally found a new life in Christ. Although I still struggle, my hope and love for the Lord always brings me back on the right path.” The blogger continues to explain, “Besides the importance of taking my medication regularly, working hard on my CBT, I have come to a personal realization that I must also devote myself to my Christian faith.”
Through her blog and her experience with mental illness, Chantal is fulfilling her role as a Christian by serving others – those with and without a mental illness – through her posts. For example, she has written one post titled, Borderline Personality Disorder and Scripture Verses. This post gives a background on BPD and serves as a devotional of sorts.
Chantal writes, “Although there is some de-stigmatization and more awareness concerning mental illness in our society, BPD has to be one of the many misconceived in our communities, support networks, families, friendships, and sadly even in our churches.”
The blogger continues by stating that many individuals who suffer from mental illnesses are often placed as societal outcasts. However, this blog post aims to pierce a nail through this stigma. “People who suffer from BPD need committed individuals that will not judge them and who are willing to spend many years counseling them with unconditional friendship/love.” Chantal includes a list of scripture verses that she has found helpful in relation to BPD, and ends the blog post by writing, “A person with BPD can recover if they commit to God, prayer and counseling. It also helps to have faithful brothers and sisters in the Lord who are willing to support a fellow Christian to a new life.”
Chantal is more than simply a blogger – she is a missionary in the field of mental illness and online support. Her blog serves as a light in the midst of a subject that still remains in a dark corner of the church, and the 21 comment replies to Chantal’s one blog post prove this to be true. The comments show a trend of dialogue – people open up and discuss their stories – they’re there to support one another as the body of Christ.
Finding the Right Solution
Things may be getting better online, but the question of how Christians can begin to talk about mental illness in church still exists. In a post on the CNN belief blog, Ed Stetzer writes, “So often in a congregation, we like to pretend that this (mental illness) is not a real issue because we have such a difficult time understanding it. We stick our heads in the sand, add the person to the prayer list and continue on ministering to the “normal” people.” Stetzer emphasizes that mental illness is real, and it is not going away anytime soon. Remembering that stigma is fueled by our fear of conflict, Stetzer writes that Christians are often afraid of mental illness and the symptoms that come with it. “As a result, we don’t know what to do with our own level of discomfort and our fears for safety, or we just don’t want to be inconvenienced,” Stetzer writes. “People of faith know that God has freed them to love others, and that love extends to everyone, even (and sometimes especially) those we don’t understand.”
Prayer is important, but so is medicine and counseling. As we wrap our broken limbs up in casts, we should should not be scared of medicinal treatment to accompany a mental illness to help in the stabilization of the chemical imbalances that make us “ill.”
In 1 Corinthians 12, the apostle Paul preaches that we are all part of the body of Christ. One part of the body of Christ cannot function without the other, and certain parts do not rank as more important than others. “But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.”
What will you do to begin talking about mental illness on Sunday morning? As Simpson writes, if you don’t know what to say, be quiet – but be there. If you don’t have a mental illness, be willing to accept the fact that you don’t have a firm understanding on the issue. Become better informed – read books and attend workshops. Offer love and friendship – shake a person’s hand, give them a smile, talk to them and let them know you’re there. Remember the fact that God has not given up on you, and therefore, you are not to give up on your brothers and sisters in the church, regardless of the trials they may be facing.
Cover Photo: Amanda Morris