Monday, May 4, 2015

Church and Mental Illness

by: Katie Gibson

For some reason, it is understandable and socially acceptable to ask for prayer and support if you are diagnosed with cancer.  Your church will typically express sympathy and offer to bring meals, or at the very least pray that your surgery and/or treatment goes well.  People will give you a little more flexibility, because they understand that you're going through a difficult time.  I am not sure why the Church is so supportive and understanding for one type of disease and at the same time can be so cruel and insensitive in its treatment of other types of illness.

When the illness in question involves your brain, Christians can sometimes respond in some very unkind and uninformed ways.  Some churches go so far as to say that all mental illness is simply a "spiritual problem" that people are trying to fix with drugs, while others take a more noncomittal approach.  Whatever approach is taken by the leadership, it often takes on a stigma that still exists today, even in popular society.

Crazy Jokes
People often post jokes about being "crazy" or being in a "mental ward" or similar viral posts on their social media profiles unaware of the potential hurt they are inflicting on those dealing with the real life effects of what they consider a "joke."

Of all the people in the world, Christians should have no problem understanding that our brains as well as our bodies have been affected by the curse of Genesis chapter 3.  Of all the places and institutions in the world, the Church should be a safe place to get help for whatever afflictions people are facing, including those that are contained in their own mind.  The fact that churches are often the last places to even acknowledge that mental illness exists, much less offer any helpful resources only helps to further reveal the gap between where we as the Church are and where we should be.

While there may be a spiritual dimension to depression (as well as other conditions), there can also be very real physical aspects to it that should not be overlooked in the cause of "biblical Christianity."  Human beings are not readily compartmentalized into body, soul, and spirit.  Often an issue that affects one aspect of a person will affect every other aspect as well.  Spiritual issues often interact with physical ones and vice versa.  Support and treatment should be as three dimensional as the problem.

Anti-Depressants or Not?
One issue that often plays into Christian discomfort with the overall topic of mental illness is what is viewed as the "unprecedented access to anti-depressant medications."  A lot of people get uncomfortable when they think that doctors are simply prescribing pills for complicated problems and not dealing with the underlying issues.  While this may very well be an issue in some cases, it does not necessarily mean that anti-depressants are not a legitimate form of treatment in some cases. 

The problem with a lot of the pushback in Christianity against medications that are classified as anti-depressants is that it is often based on fear and oversimplified misinformation.  Broad strokes are often used to describe very complicated and varying conditions, which only leads to more confusion.  Also, the agenda becomes more important than the people facing the issue personally, and it is not pursued with sensitivity towards those complicated decisions and difficult situations.
 As often happens with controversial topics, people approach it as if there are no real people on the other end, only abstract ideas that they are free to use and abuse as it fits their cause.  
This is incredibly hurtful to the people who are living with this reality on a daily basis.  The decision to try taking an anti-depressant (whether for depression, chronic pain, sleep problems, etc.) is not a light one, and it is often made ten times harder by the pressure felt from well-meaning family and friends who make the patient feel isolated, "crazy," or "deficient" for needing medication.

Moving Forward
An issue as complex and multi-faceted as mental illness will not be solved with one simple answer.  The situations that arise will take consideration and sensitivity as unique as the people who find themselves in them.  Rather than trying to find a "one size fits all" solution that preaches well from a pulpit, I believe our churches would be better equipped to serve everyone involved by following some of the suggestions below:

1.  Listen Empathetically - Instead of jumping straight into a situation looking for a "sin" issue to fix, starting off with empathetic listening and trying to understand the individual situation will build an atmosphere of safety and trust.

2. Study - If the person coming for counsel or support is struggling with a diagnosis of OCD or depression or bi-polar disorder, it only makes sense that the pastor or church leadership in question would read up on the condition they've been diagnosed with in order to help them sort out their needs for medication and their needs for spiritual support.

3. Show Unconditional Love - Situations like this can be extremely scary and uncertain, and often people are afraid that if they share what they are going through with their church, people will view them differently.  Proving this stereotype wrong and treating people with love regardless of what condition they are diagnosed with shows grace in such a deep way.

4. Speak Carefully - It's easy to make light remarks about heavy issues and assume that no one who hears you has personally struggled with it.  If it's not appropriate to make jokes about cancer, don't make jokes about crazy people in mental hospitals or on anti-depressants.  

You never know what the people you're talking to have been facing.  And if you continue to joke about it, it's likely you never will.

5. Avoid mentally categorizing it as "us" and "them" - This is similar to some other points previously listed, but it's easy for people who don't struggle with mental issues to associate those issues with "those people" who struggle with it.  It's easy to assume something like that could never happen to you.  Putting yourself on a higher level because you don't face that particular type of affliction is arrogant, and it will limit the people you get to minister to, because it becomes obvious rather quickly when people are snarky about mental health.  

6. Stop viewing healthcare professionals as the enemy - While there are major areas of philosophical difference between psychology and Christianity, there are also areas of overlap where having a psychiatrist on your healthcare team can be invaluable in determining pro's and con's of various medications.  Rather than writing off all psychiatrists as "secular" and "anti-God" it would be amazing if churches could view healthcare professionals as one more asset to help their people live healthy lives, rather than competition.

7. Create a safe environment - Make your church a place where weakness is celebrated instead of shunned and hidden.  Instead of encouraging people to put themselves together and come to church looking perfect, let them see that our weakness is made perfect in Christ's strength.  Let the church be known for extending grace and compassion rather than judgment and condemnation.

These are just a few suggestions for paving the way to a church that is not afraid to tackle the difficult subject of mental illness and anti-depressants.  There are many more we could address, but these are just a few to get us started.  However you put it into practice, please keep grace in mind as you interact on this topic.  People throughout our churches are facing these issues and decisions on top of the stigma and pressure to hide their choices from the church.  This is a sad reality, but it doesn't have to stay that way.  It can change for the better.  If you have any additional suggestions for how the Church can do a better job of interacting with the topics of mental illness and anti-depressants feel free to join the conversation by posting a comment below.

What would the Church globally look like if people felt safe enough to share their deepest heartaches and uncertainties with the people who supposedly love them like family?

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