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The Church Needs to Stop 'Sad Shaming' People With Mental Illness

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I recently heard a sermon about how to find contentment. It was part of an otherwise enlightening series about “how to mess up in life.” In it, the pastor, who I greatly respect, outlined eight ways we end up unhappy based on the choices we make. It was a well-intended list: never having enough, being ungrateful for what we have, feeling entitled to things we don’t earn, etc. But it centered around the notion that happiness is intentional and is a learned behavior. That we can earn happiness simply by working for it. “Be a fountain, don’t be a drain,” he said. “Don’t live with a critical spirit. That just comes from poor self-concept.”

To that, I ask this: Where does poor self-concept come from?

This is exactly the kind of illogic that pins mental illness to the wine-stained carpet at churchgoers’ feet. This is why people with mental illness have such difficulty finding solace in the Church. The Church teaches that earthly possessions cannot make you happy, only Jesus can. They reason that happiness and salvation are intertwined and are interchangeable pieces of life given by Jesus to all who believe in Him.

Well, just because He can offer contentment doesn’t mean He will.

And while it is certainly possible for people of sound mind to align with Christ in ways that achieve a form of happiness, I believe it is equally impossible to expect the same from people with mental illness. Impossible and unfair. 

You can’t teach a dog to sing the alphabet.

And yes, some of us need meds. Most Christians wouldn’t denounce those who take aspirin after heart surgery. Besides, not taking it would increase the risk of blood clots. Likewise, many Christians wouldn’t say, “Screw this little pill — I’ll just pray that God will thin my blood.” They would just take the pill.

Yet many Christians do say, and are taught people with depression should be able to pray the sadness away. The stigma attached to mental illness is so heavy. The shame is so tangibly real. I have been warned by loved ones that even admitting to struggles with depression would have detrimental impact on everything that has gone right in my life: my wife and five kids, a rewarding job in health care. two ministries I have been called upon to lead.

Churches often try to “sell” Jesus to people struggling with mental illness…

“Jesus will solve all of your problems.”

“It is only through Christ that you will find joy.”

“How can you be a Christian and be so depressed?”

“Don’t you know God will lift your burdens if you give them to Him?”

It’s sad shaming.

And it only perpetuates the problem.

I was raised in suit, tie and dress churches in upscale suburban Detroit. The kinds of Nazarene churches that played host to Reagan-era conservatism and Free Methodist ones that awkwardly conformed to 90s liberation. The kinds of churches where everyone knew each other and at the same time no one knew anyone at all. Where ushers exchanged feigned smiles at those who dutifully tithed. Where youth leaders hid behind their insecurities, choir directors puffed their chests as if at symphonies and congregants haggled with pastors who wanted their corporate discounts.

I was never courageous enough to tell my parents about my depression — there was no way in hell I was going to confide in anyone at church. No one cared enough to see through my transparency. I was OK with that at the time.

I’m still OK with it.

I can’t rationalize my depression any more than others can sympathize with it. My depression is the self-deprecating and self-loathing kind. It’s completely unprovoked. It’s silly. I didn’t earn it. I didn’t endure childhood trauma, so it wasn’t borne out of PTSD, abuse, neglect or family dysfunction. It just is. It exists in its own space in the back of my brain and bursts to the forefront when something triggers it. So, it would be absurd for me to expect a church to understand it.

But, there’s a big difference between understanding and trivializing. And this is where the Church can learn and grow.

In some respects, little pocket-congregations across denominations have already made concerted efforts. It’s becoming more commonplace for churches to host depression support groups, sponsor events for suicide awareness and offer pastoral counseling. These are certainly well-intentioned icebreakers for marrow-deep complexities, but they really only scratch the surface.

People with mental illness will continue to struggle with guilt-borne stigma until Christians become honest with themselves. It will stay taboo until there is widespread transparency. It will remain a label until churches lift blame from their doctrines. It will forever be superficial as long as churches hide behind its roots.

It is time to unearth it.

Churches need to take up their crosses and fill the voids that are left by the rest of society. It’s really not an option. It’s a duty. As Christ followers, we are called to provide shelter for people struggling and a safe haven for the oppressed. We are to be all-welcoming and all-loving and reserve judgment for our Creator.

We are to give grace as we have been given it.

Part of this grace is the absolute fact that no two people are alike. No two minds work alike. The things that bring you happiness — faith-inspired or otherwise — won’t necessarily bring your neighbor happiness. They won’t bring me happiness. People can be filled with the Holy Spirit and still be depressed, anxious, suicidal, manic, borderline or have any other host of mental proclivities. Certain salvation doesn’t automatically yield contentment any more than certain death yields misery.

Some of us actually struggle to praise God, and oftentimes we do so in spite of how we feel. It doesn’t come easy for everyone.

We live in a culture free-flowing with antidepressants, yet most psychiatric hospitals are hollow shells of buildings long abandoned. We live church lives of big faith and even bigger bombast, yet even the Bethels of the world cannot stall the exponential rise in pastor suicides. We seek comfort in therapists and counselors, yet our government is trying to strip our insurance of mental health coverage, further extolling the stigma that illnesses of the mind aren’t medical disorders at all.

They are.

And it is time for people who do not struggle with mental affliction – including institutions like the Church – to stop treating it as some taboo anomaly. People do not choose to experience manic depression, bipolar, schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder, anorexia or to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Mental illness is an effect, not a cause. It is always rooted in either genetics or as a result of experience. It originates from somewhere. No one wakes up and soundly thinks, Hey, I want to curl fetal in bed today and sob uncontrollably for hours. Yet, society is conditioned against mental illness.

Please stop.

Stop sad shaming us.

Instead, church, embrace the mind as something that humans will never fully understand. Accept the fact that happiness cannot be forced upon or shamed unto people. Destroy the existential disgrace of “free will or else.”  Turn the stigmatic examples of Biblical exorcism into real life accounts of family members who struggle, but find ways to survive. Deconstruct existing support groups in order to make room for root causes, and then expound on them and work toward healing. Foster transparent environments so that people feel safe being open about their struggles.

Love all. Give grace. Put faith in Jesus — don’t take it from people.

It might be all that they have left.

Follow this journey on Amity Coalition.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or text “HOME” to 741-741. Head here for a list of crisis centers around the world.

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Unsplash photo via Priscilla du Preez.

Originally published: September 7, 2017
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