Mental Illness, Faith and the Response of the Church

30 08 2015

This topic has been really floating around in my head alot lately.  I’ve been thoughtfully and prayerfully considering this post, because I didn’t want to be doing so insensitively, but as I was driving home tonight, I saw a sign on the road that made me realize how much I was being led to write about this subject.  This is a personal thing for me, because I have seen numerous times, how people have used the so-called ‘gospel’ to make people feel bad about their mental illnesses and hang-ups.  And that’s just not the “good news,” that I know and love.

The sign that I saw on the side of the road said this:  “We are too blessed to be depressed.”  When I first started to deal with my anxiety, my well-meaning Christian friends told me that my anxiety was a direct result of my own failure to trust God enough, that I was allowing my worries to overtake my life.  Those who deal with self-harm, are often met with the critique that they are “desecrating the temple of God” and they should stop.  Those who deal with an eating disorder, we just plop a big ol’ plate of fried chicken, taters and a biscuit in front of them, and tell them to eat.

The problem with all of these approaches is that in each response, the church tends to (as a whole) critique the surface problems, instead of understanding the deeper, underlying problem.  Unfortunately, we gloss over a lot of the biology of these mental illnesses, and instead, we like to see each mental illness as a “choice” that these people make.  We gloss over the impact that our words can have upon these people, and we gloss over the impact that previous well-meaning words have negatively influenced those with mental illnesses.

It’s really interesting to observe, the difference between the way we treat mental illness and the way we treat those who are on the exterior walls of our churches.  I mean this figuratively, of course.  By exterior walls, I mean those that the church normally excludes.  For some reason, we (myself included) get so high and mighty, and we get so wrapped up in our own little worlds, that we forget that the ‘good news’ is all about including everyone into the family of God, mental illnesses and all.  Beyond that, that the message of grace is open to those whom it wouldn’t seem that the message of grace should be for.  In this category, I include those people who are on the fringes.  I include the prostitutes, tax collectors, other sinners.  Funny how that list includes the kinds of people that Jesus hung out with.

Until recently mental illness was one of those fringe people.  If you had a mental illness, you weren’t typically open to discussing it, and often, it would never be discussed.  Until recently, those who had some sort of mental issue were not found to be open about it, and you might never know that a person dealt with depression or eating disorders or whatever else other tribulation that people can face within their head.  The sad part about it is, that as a church, we still keep those people on the fringes.  We still are unable to respond with compassion and empathy.

We fail to respond like this because we lack understanding.  We demonstrate our lack of understanding, by saying that depressed people need to suck it up and smile.  We demonstrate our lack of concern for those who have anxiety, by focusing on the failure of the person, and not the reality of the trials that the person is facing within their mind.  We demonstrate lack of care when we write off those with bipolar tendencies as “possessed” or “under the influence of evil spirits.”  We ignore the self-harmers’ deeper-set issues and insecurities, by blaming them for the desire they have to hurt themselves.  We show how ignorant we are to those who have an eating disorder, when we set a full plate in front of them, expecting this action to cure them.  This is not only the response of the church, but sometimes, it’s the response of society as a whole.

The people who deal with these issues, rarely simply deal with the issues themselves, but there is a deeper-set issue that is there, and there are more things at play than just the issue.  For example, in my own experience of anxiety, this comes rooted from abandonment and trust issues, as well as insecurity in myself and the things that I know.  Once I get into that, it spirals into a panic attack about the unknown and the future, and the things that scare me, including opening my heart to someone new.  I fixate on certain things and people, as if that fixation will help me, and sometimes, I find the self-destruct button on my life, and I could choose to press it, and expel everyone in my life.  This isn’t typical.  But from my experience, nothing of those things have to do with my doubt in God or the doubt in God to take care of me.  That’s secure and settled.

Maybe our mental issues don’t have anything to reflect in our faith in God.  Perhaps the mental issues we face are just another symptom of our fallen world, and all of the bad things that are in that world.  Maybe the mental roadblocks that some people face has nothing to do with our faith and trust in God, but more to do with the fact that we are somehow made imperfectly, and they’re there to help us to realize the gap between ourselves and God.  Maybe they’re there to make us more thankful that even though we are flawed, we can still be used to spread love and hope and joy.  Maybe our mental illness and the issues we face can be turned outward to be a blessing to others, a chance for each other to walk in love and in community, instead of shaming the individual, to accept that we are trying as best as we can to allow ourselves to be gently healed in time, by the creator, and in the meantime, using this to connect us to each other.  Maybe we’re not meant to shame each other as we are, but instead, we are meant to share our stories to encourage each other, and give each other a common ground.  Maybe instead of shaming each other, we can use these very same things we once saw as shameful to be a beautiful asset that makes us who we are, and gives us our character and makes us better people, a more compassionate people.

As long as our first concern is ourselves, we will never be able to use anything to turn the focus on God and what God has done and is doing.  But when we focus on mental illness as a failure on the part of the person, we completely focus on humanity, instead of the perfect one from whom all blessings flow.

That’s a lot of pressure.  And it’s too much for anxiety girl.