“Something has changed in you. You don’t have the spark and enthusiasm you had as a child.”
My mother confronted me several years ago after my grades, motivation and self esteem plummeted. I never imagined that I would be anything less than successful; everyone had always told me how I would thrive academically and socially. But when I was diagnosed with depression, I managed to surprise – or disappoint – everyone that once held me in such high regard.
The National Alliance for Mental Illness estimates that over 14 million American adults live with major depression and over 42 million live suffer from anxiety disorders. In addition, Healthline estimates that depression alone will affect one in ten Americans during their lifetime.
With over a quarter of the U.S. population suffering from mental illness, it is inevitable that at least one person in the pew next to you is struggling with depression, anxiety or another disorder. Since being diagnosed with depression, I have become overwhelmed by the disposition of the Church towards those struggling with mental illness. There is great inconsistency between the message of the Church and its application in areas of psychiatric ailment: we are called to love our neighbor unconditionally, yet we regularly shy away from the depressed, the anxious, the anorexic.
What is the reason for this disconnect between belief and action? Mental illness has always been a difficult topic of discussion for churchgoers. One study by LifeWay Research showed that 66 percent of churchgoers reported hearing their pastors speak to the church in sermons about mental illness once a year, rarely or never. However this same study also reported that “90 percent of pastors and 74 percent of individuals with acute mental illness agreed that local churches have a responsibility to provide resources and support to individuals with mental illness and their families.”
Ultimately, the Church cannot begin to reconcile Psychology and Christianity until it understands that depression, anxiety and other mental disorders are caused by a combination of genetic, biological, psychological and environmental factors and therefore require both medical and psychological support. To simply “pray more” or “trust God more” is not the answer to curing mental illness.
Eight years ago, Saddleback Church in California broke the barrier between Psychology and Christianity when it began its Celebrate Recovery ministry. Celebrate Recovery is a twelve-step program that integrates Christ-centered principles with organized group sharing. It’s popularity has skyrocketed and now has over five hundred ministries across the U.S. to help people confront problems with depression, anxiety, codependency, chemical and sexual addictions, and other areas of concern. Still, despite being rooted in the fact that “Jesus Christ is the one and only Higher Power,” many pastors are still skeptical about Celebrate Recovery and similar twelve-step programs.
During high school, I regularly attended Celebrate Recovery at a local church in Virginia. It did not take long for me to recognize the hesitation of other Christians in talking about mental illness and recovery programs. One Sunday, our pastor referenced depression in a sermon but quickly reminded us that he “did not necessarily support twelve step programs.”
It is this passivity that inhibits Christian recovery programs from spreading to thousands of unreached churches. As a member of Celebrate Recovery, I have seen healing in the lives of dozens through Christ-centered therapy. While this twelve-step program is in no way a cure to mental illness, it provides a spiritual community of acceptance. The very thing that these people need most, and the very thing that Christians are called to do – love – is being overlooked when the Church does not respond to the issue of mental illness.
Instead of shying away from the subject, we should approach the suffering with open hearts and open arms. In 2 Corinthians 12:10, Paul says “That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”. Only when I reached rock bottom did I fully understand the saving power of Christ. The love and unconditional acceptance that I experienced upon joining in my suffering with others at Celebrate Recovery both humbled me and built me up. When we join together in weakness with other Christians, both individuals and the Church are strengthened.