The church carries the greatest message of hope for those suffering with mental illness. Jesus came to save everyone, God is forgiving, and there is salvation of available, regardless of mental health challenges.
Unfortunately, the church continues to miss the mark and far too many times creates more pain than comfort. The church and those of us in it, MUST DO BETTER!
Some people suffering mental illness have been given some painfully bad advice from those in the church:
“You just need to believe more.”
“You just need to pray more.”
"You need to have more faith."
"You're issues are a result of your sin."
Let me start off my immediately address those claims, they are not true. Many times this advice is given with good intentions but it is lack of knowledge and understanding on the part of the church member that allows such poor advice to be given. The Church is a vessel that must be effective in helping people fight mental illness. Although there is some painful history behind the church’s handling and shaming of mental health and illness, the world is changing very quickly and answers like needing to “pray more” and “believe more” are no longer acceptable answers.
So, how can the Church move forward to better love its neighbors suffering from mental illness?
Church leaders are at the forefront in this fight against mental illness and stigma, for better or worse. In America, when people seek help for their mental illness, 43% of them go first to a church leader. This is a much higher proportion than people who seek out doctors or psychiatrists. Many people are looking to the church for help, but many church leaders don’t know how to help.
A pastor is not a therapist and psychiatrist and most college training for pastors includes maybe one simple class on counseling. The pastor, priest, deacon, or elder is rather a bridge and a means to an end, but there’s something to be said for church members’ trust and vulnerability towards their church leaders. How can church leaders do better?
Feedback from one of our clients explained that when he was suffering from depression, there was a lot of temptation to see himself as less of a Christian and less of a believer. The feedback and advice from church members only helped cement this idea in his head. Church members and leaders need to reinforce the truth that people with mental illness are as loved and valuable by God as people without mental illness.
It’s normal to ask the following question: “if God loves me, why do I feel this way?" or "Am I am a good Christian, why am I feeling this way?” Suffering from mental illness doesn't make a person less loved by Christ and reinforcing that message is an essential task for the Church and it's leadership.
Churches also needs to make sure people are referred to resources when they’re seeking them out and needs to make their congregation aware that the church has these resources available. A recent study demonstrated the vast majority of pastors were unprepared to aid those with mental illness, 68% of churches didn't have mental health resources available, and 81% of the churches that did have resources had congregations that didn't know they were available.
The biggest barrier for those inside and outside the church is fear from stigma. For many Christians, starting to talk about mental health is uncomfortable. Almost all of our clients explain how the first time they talked to someone about depression, they just didn’t know what to say. It feels awkward and uncomfortable. There’s a fear that anything said will only exacerbate the situation.
Remember, Christians are human beings too and as humans we have the inclination to try to fix people, their problems, and their mental health issues. Faith can sometimes only intensify what the person that already feels like they need to fix people, but the fixer mentality goes against the Gospel: it is God who saves, not us.
The church must work to de-stigmatize mental health and make people realize that there’s nothing wrong with them as people or believers, for suffering from depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, or bipolar disorder is an illness, much the same as a broken leg or cancer. As a haven for broken and forsaken sinners, we should expect that the church would have more people suffering from mental health problems than the general population. The ministry’s overarching goal is to comfort the afflicted, and God’s ideal church brings the afflicted to it.
Ed Stetzer of Christianity Today writes that the conversation among Christians can often feel forced, even when high-profile Christian leaders have died by suicide, including Andrew Stoecklein of Inland Hills Church in California and Christian mental health advocate, Jarrid Wilson.
Stetzer recounts a very painful personal memory. He was a young pastor who didn’t know how to handle mental illness and a very faithful member of the church went to him for help with his severe bipolar disorder. The member prayed, a lot. He would pray the Psalms to “be set free from such tormenting cycles…but he was not delivered.” As a 25-year-old pastor, Stetzer just didn’t know what to do besides pray. The member ended up taking his own life, and Stetzer came to the painful realization that “I was unprepared to effectively address mental health issues within my congregation.”
From the research, Stetzer notes a current clear disconnect between pastors’ views on the importance of talking about mental health, and the actual execution of it. He talks about how three out of four pastors knew at least one family member, friend, or congregant diagnosed with bipolar disorder or clinical depression. A quarter even battled mental illness themselves.
However, nearly half of pastors noted rarely or never speaking on mental illness to their churches in sermons or messages. This notes a disconnect between what churches say they offer and what congregants actually experience. The church, then, needs to break the silence, and one of those ways, according to the majority of people polled by a study is to talk openly about mental illness.
Stetzer and Defeat Suicide Foundation urges pastors to lead the charge on de-stigmatizing discussions of mental health.
Both family members and those with a disorder say one of the biggest aids from the Church would be working towards erasing the stigmatization of mental illness. If a pastor has suffered, or is currently wrestling with a mental illness, let him or her share the story with the congregation. Regardless, we should be sharing how the Gospel and Christian faith speak of hope and healing.
But we would argue that the buck doesn’t stop at pastors or church leaders. The most common reason why someone talks to the pastor about mental illness in the first place is because a congregant talks to another congregant he or she feels close to, and the congregant says “oh, you should talk to the pastor.” Sometimes, the pastor has a reputation for being good at guiding people in their walk with Christ, mental illness, and giving resources.
The ownership for help and hope needs to begin at congregants of a church themselves too, who can help the battle against stigma in the church by talking about it themselves. Share your story if you or a family member have dealt with mental illness. It’s not easy, but sometimes we can’t always rely on other people to do the work for us.
Interested in the church educational programs, sermons, and trainings Defeat Suicide Foundation offers to churches? Reach out to us here in our contact form and we will happily reach out to you right away.