Q & R: Christians and Mental Illness

Here’s the Q:

I’m curious about your thoughts on how the Church can better serve people with mental illness.
Y’see, I’ve been struggling with depression, anxiety, and ADD (all at the same time, too!) since I was a boy. If it wasn’t for God coming into my life when I was a teenager, I probably wouldn’t be here. I think the Church has a lot more understanding of mental illness than it did years ago (it used to be that if you had depression, you just didn’t have enough faith), but I think there’s still work to be done.
Since depression makes you feel like the only person in the world, how do you think the Church can serve people suffering from mental illness?

Here’s the R:

Thanks so much for this question. I agree, we’re making progress, but we still have a long way to go.
This subject is deeply important to me because among my close friends and family, there is a lot of mental illness. And although I’m normally an energetic and upbeat person, I have experienced a few episodes of painful, draining, persistent depression myself. They’ve left their mark on me.
The reality of mental illness pushes us out of what I call (in A New Kind of Christianity) a “constitutional reading of the Bible,” since the Bible has no categories for schizophrenia, Asperger Syndrome, bipolar disorder, and so on. These realities force us to mine Scripture for deeper resources than “proof texts,” and require us to find approaches to the Bible better than ones that – as you said – often treated mental illness as a lack of faith or even demon possession.
Just telling a depressed person to pray more or rejoice in the Lord, or telling a person with an anxiety disorder to trust God and stop worrying is … well, it’s worse than useless. Doing so will just give them more to be depressed and anxious about.
That’s why I think we need to speak more openly and often about mental illness. We have to destigmatize it by telling our stories … of hospitalizations, medications, counseling, and so on. We have to tell stories about how our faith was challenged and eventually matured through our experiences with mental illness – our own, and others’.
We also need to speak more sensitively about mental illness. I remember, for example, being corrected after a sermon where I used the term “psychotic” as an epithet. Someone came up to me afterwards and said, “I’ve had psychotic episodes. That’s a diagnosis, not a moral failure.” I needed that correction.
We also need to educate kids ministry workers, youth workers, and adult workers about mental illness. What may seem like disrespect or disruption may be something very different.
One more thing comes to mind: I think we need to acknowledge more frequently and honestly the presence of pain in our spiritual lives … in our liturgies, in our sermons, in our public worship and small group gatherings. I’m hearing this a lot in response to Naked Spirituality … people appreciate the honesty of the book in acknowledging that pain – including mental and emotional pain – is a big part of our lives, and in fact, a huge factor in our spiritual growth.
Thanks for bringing up this subject. I hope it will engender some needed dialogue leading to greater compassion and support for one another. We’re all in this together.