Making the Church a Safe Place for Mental Illness
- Stephen Altrogge Pastor, Sovereign Grace Church of Indiana, PA
- 2015 8 Jan
Church can be a tough place for people who struggle with depression, anxiety, bipolar, or any other mental disorder. Not because church members don’t care about those who struggle with mental illness, but because most church members don’t really know how to care for those struggle. Those who struggle can feel lonely, hopeless, and ashamed.
I don’t say this in a critical way. Trust me, I get it: mental stuff is really hard to understand. Depression doesn’t make sense if you’ve never experienced it. Chronic physical anxiety almost sounds like worry, even though the two are drastically different. Bipolar doesn’t fit into any sort of neat category. It’s really hard to know how to effectively care for a brother or sister who is mired in the darkness. It’s not as simple as dealing with a headache or the flu, where there is a clear cause and a clear cure.
We’re called to bear one another’s burdens, even if we don’t totally understand those burdens. We’re called to lift one another up, to strengthen one another, and to shower the love of Christ on each other. Church should be the safest place for those who struggle with mental illness. It should be a place of refuge amidst the constant misery. Don’t you agree?
So how can we make the church a safe place for those who struggle with mental illness? Here are a few suggestions.
ACKNOWLEDGE THAT MENTAL ILLNESS IS A REAL THING
In some churches, there’s this weird taboo surrounding mental illness. Nobody ever talks about it or acknowledges that it’s real. If a guy is sunk into depression, we say he’s, “Going through a rough patch,” or, “Having a tough time,” or we don’t say anything at all. If someone has cancer, we pray that God will heal her. If someone has back surgery, we make meals for him. But when it comes to mental illness, we don’t know what to say or do. Everyone knows something is wrong, but nobody actually talks about it.
If we’re going to really serve those who struggle, we need to readily acknowledge that mental disorders are real, and that they can really mess a person up. We need to come to terms with the reality that our outer selves, including our brains, are “wasting away” (2 Corinthians 4:16). We need to affirm that all of creation, including our bodies and brains, have been “subjected to futility” (Romans 8:20). Mental illness is a result of the fall. We are totally depraved, which means that the totality of our being, including our minds, have been broken.
When we acknowledge that mental illness is a real category of suffering, it allows those who are suffering to open up to others. It also allows other Christians to pray for and serve those who are suffering. The Bible has so many words of encouragement for those who are suffering, but we won’t be able to encourage others unless we first recognize that they really are suffering. As one who has dealt with chronic physical anxiety for years, I can assure you, mental illness is real suffering.
TALK ABOUT BOTH THE PHYSICAL AND SPIRITUAL SIDES OF MENTAL ILLNESS
Here’s where things get a bit complex. As humans, we are body and soul together. The body and soul are intertwined, always interacting with, affecting, and even compromising one another. When talking about mental illness, we need to talk about the physical aspects just as much as the spiritual aspects. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. After all, this is how we talk about every other form of sickness. When a woman has cancer, she will be incredibly tempted to worry, and we, in turn, should come alongside her in comfort, prayer, and counsel. But we don’t stop there. We also tell her to get the appropriate treatment for the cancer. We don’t simply say, “You need to pray more!” That would be ludicrous.
To say that the brain is somehow immune from the effects of sin is both unbiblical and counter to everything we know about brain chemistry. When a woman is depressed, there are real, physical symptoms. She may feel incredibly hopeless. She may feel overwhelmingly sad for no apparent reason. She may not even have the strength to get out of bed. You can’t tell her to have more faith, read her Bible more, pray more, or snap out of it, just like you can’t tell a cancer patient to snap out of it. True, biblical care looks like coming alongside of her and praying for her, encouraging her, AND helping her find the appropriate medical treatment.
This is an area that requires biblical, Proverbs-like wisdom. Obviously not all discouragement is depression, not all worry is obsessive compulsive disorder, and not all strange thoughts are schizophrenia. But mental illness is real, and it has a physical side to it. Telling a mentally ill person to just stop only makes things that much worse for them. Rather, we need to help shoulder their burden as much as possible, even though we don’t totally understand the burden.
GIVE LESS ADVICE AND MORE LOVE
The reality is that if you haven’t experienced mental illness it’s really hard to understand it. I don’t say this in a critical, martyr like way—it’s just the way it is. I don’t get migraines, which means I don’t really understand what it’s like to have regular migraines. The same principle holds true if you haven’t dealt with a mental disorder. This means that unless you’re a trained physician, one of the best ways to serve those who are struggling is to give them less advice and more love. My friend Adam once said to me, “I don’t know what it’s like to have anxiety, but I believe you. When you say you’re having a bad day with anxiety, I just trust that you are.” Those words were really meaningful to me. When I would tell Adam I was having a bad day, he wouldn’t try to fix me somehow. He would pray for me, which is what I needed most.
Those who are struggling with a mental disorder need to be constantly reminded that God loves them and is for them. They need to be reminded that even though they can’t see it or feel it, God is near, he is taking care of them, and he’ll get them through the darkness. They don’t need to be told to try harder, pray harder, believe harder, or work harder. They need to be gently reminded again and again that the Good Shepherd is carrying them, even though they feel totally lost. They need to be encouraged that their awful feelings are not an accurate picture of reality.
I want the church to be a safe place for messy people, including those, like me, who struggle with some form of mental illness. Is it easy to serve someone with a mental disorder? Of course not! But Jesus gravitated toward those who didn’t haven’t it all together, and he wants us to follow his lead. Let’s move toward the mess.
Stephen Altrogge is a writer, pastor, and knows a lot about Star Wars. Find out more at The Blazing Center.