Mental Illness and the Church

This past Sunday, our pastor (and my husband) shared some of his struggles with mental health in his sermon. If you didn’t already hear it, you can watch the video here. Mental illness is something the church often doesn’t deal with, and doesn’t want to talk about. Or if it is discussed, it’s usually in the form of labeling suicide as a sin, or drawing in comparisons to possession by an evil spirit. Sometimes the conversation drifts to the idea that someone doesn’t have enough faith if they are depressed, and they just “need more Jesus.”

But if we believe what Jesus says in Scripture, then faith the size of a mustard seed is enough to move mountains, even the mountains of our mental illness. What we forget is that the answer to our prayers is often in the form of seemingly “worldly” things. We don’t guilt people with physical illnesses about their prayer life – “just turn it over to God!” We don’t say to someone with a broken leg, “oh, your faith must not be strong enough, otherwise your bone wouldn’t have broken.” So why do we do this with mental health?

Full disclosure: I’ve taken antidepressants for almost seven years. I started on them shortly after the death of our daughter, and while I did change the type of medication at one point, I didn’t stop taking it. I’ve always struggled with depression, and once we had such a significant loss, I could not face getting out of bed or doing anything to care for myself. While I knew “intellectually” that going for a walk would help lift my mood and keep my body healthy, emotionally and mentally I could not begin to find the energy to even put on my shoes. The darkness is debilitating, and if you are fortunate enough to have never experienced it, you can’t begin to imagine the depth of pain and exhaustion.

Depression is one of the most common mental illnesses in our country, but there are so many more. Some are manageable with medications and/or therapy. Others can be severe enough that the person afflicted is unable to work or function on their own. For some people, the illness is temporary. Most will struggle with it for a lifetime. And the stigma surrounding mental illness continues in our society. It’s not immaturity, or a failure of character, or a sin. Yes, sometimes these can be symptoms of the mental illness, but the illness itself is not sin, moral failing, or childishness.

When a person has a stroke, and their brain no longer functions properly, we give them leeway and physical therapy. We understand that something has gone wrong and their brain is not working the way it should. But most of those symptoms show up in motor function problems. With mental illness, it’s simply not easy to see that someone is sick, and we often begin to judge the person’s behavior on assumptions of perfect mental health.

God loves you. He loves me. He loves the “crazy” guy walking down the street talking to himself. He loves the drug addict shooting up in her car after she drops off her kids at school. He loves the famous person who just wants to die and the ignored person who just wants to be noticed. We, as Christians, are called to share that love of God with everyone we meet. In some cases, it’s simply a smile. In others, it may be offering help. How you help can differ based on the person’s needs and your relationship to them.

A few ways to help: volunteer with organizations that feed and shelter the homeless, get involved in organizations that help kids in the community, donate to clinics that offer mental health services to those living in poverty;

Or with those you know: when you haven’t seen or talked to a friend in a while, call them up. Make a point of reaching out to folks who have lost loved ones, especially in the weeks and months after the funeral is done. Have lunch with a widow from church, or bring coffee to a new mom and then do her dishes for her. Pay attention to the folks in your life, the ones God has placed in your path. These are the ones who need you most. And if you know someone who has admitted to their own chronic mental health struggles, find out how best to help. This may mean talking to them or their family members to find out what they need. We bring soup to folks who have had surgery and send cards to the hospital. Soup is more than physical nourishment. Don’t ignore the mental illness when someone is struggling. That’s when they need you the most.

About the Author
Stephanie Pittock is the Director of Christian Education at Christ Lutheran Church in Fort Worth. She and her husband, Rev. Travis Pittock (pastor of Christ Lutheran), have been serving together in ministry since their marriage in 2001.

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