Pastor and Christian Leadership Resources

4 Reasons Why the Church Needs to Reform Its Teaching on Mental Illness

4 Reasons Why the Church Needs to Reform Its Teaching on Mental Illness

Recently I sat and heard another message where a pastor shared alarming facts and figures around the number of adults and children on antidepressants and anti-anxiety medicine in our country. I was encouraged that the topic was being addressed by a spiritual leader but left feeling the same confusion and shame that stopped me from addressing my own mental health crisis for years because the language around this topic was incomplete.

We need to talk about mental health in our churches but if we are going to be brave enough to share our thoughts on this complex issue, we have to take the time to better understand it so as to not exacerbate the already rampant crisis in our culture.

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Mental Health Discussion in the Church

In my own story, I grew up in the church and only heard mental health described as a spiritual failing. If you are anxious, you just need more of God’s peace (true, but how do I get this peace?), if you are depressed, you need to be more grateful (I am so grateful, why am I struggling to get through the days?), and if your mind is racing with negative thoughts, you just need to capture them (I am trying but I’m still drowning). I struggled under the weight of intrusive anxiety and depression that was compounded by endless guilt and shame because I felt that no matter how hard I tried to solve what I felt was a spiritual problem, I failed.

The message I internalized was that my faith wasn’t strong enough to heal my mind and body.

What I do feel is that my faith saved me. God’s love protected me from the worst of myself. His Word comforted my struggling heart. My prayers softened the sting of anxiety and depression. My community brought me joy and comfort when I was stuck. God comforts and helps us through every struggle. He is there with us when we walk through illness, loss, sickness, and more. His Word is true in that we can cast our cares on Him, but there is more to the story when it comes to mental health.

The mental health crisis in our country is so very complex, and it cannot be reduced to a spiritual problem. The millions that are finding themselves in the throes of this battle are being paralyzed when our spiritual leaders fail to discuss the complex nature of this ailment. If we are going to be talking about medication from the pulpit, it’s important that we are aware of the risks.

We don’t usually talk about blood pressure medications…or any other medical issue from the stage, but for some reason taking prescription medication for anxiety and depression is something we are willing to talk about from a stage. I think the discussion is relevant, but if we are going to go there, we need to do it with a robust understanding of the issue.

Some things to consider when talking about our faith and the mental health crisis in our country:

Woman with her hand on her head, depressed

1. The Mental Health Crisis Is Caused by More Than a Lack of Faith

First, the mental health crisis is caused by more than a lack of faith in our country. That should always be said from the stage if we are going to talk about this issue to our congregations. I never once heard a spiritual leader encourage those battling for their lives (at times) by telling them that what they face is not their fault! Healing comes from the Lord, but wisdom tells us that he provides healing in many ways. Professionals such as therapists, doctors, and counselors are tools God uses to help us find his peace when we are seeking him for our mental health.

We should never bring up the topic of those taking prescription medication for anxiety or depression without encouraging them that God desires them to find healing! These are just a tool that we can use to experience God’s love in peace in a greater way. We each should consult our doctors about the risks of taking such serious medications, and spiritual shaming should not be one of the risks that stop us from making the decision to use this tool.

I knew God’s peace during my battles with my mind and body, but it was so much more work to feel and know that peace when my body was working against me day in and day out. I am confident that it was God’s grace that led me to finally, after eight years of struggle, humbly accept my need for medical help to find healing. I tried every other remedy and spoke to counselors, mentors, therapists, and more! God’s healing finally came in the form of a tiny pill I take every night, and after years of striving, praying, searching, and failing, I am so grateful.

2. Anxiety and Depression Are Caused by Physical Imbalances

It is well documented that our behavior, thoughts, and trauma cause anxiety and depression. Those are all things that we need the help of others and the Holy Spirit to work through. Counselors, therapists, and a strong community are key to walking through these dark seasons.

In addition to these traumas, stresses, and losses, these struggles are caused by physical imbalances in my body.

This fact can make finding healing especially tricky if you are taught that medication is a spiritual defeat. Postpartum anxiety and depression are caused by hormone imbalances. Anxiety and depression are connected to gut health issues. You can become anxious due to heart issues, thyroid issues, IBS, Diabetes, tumors, respiratory disorders, chronic pain, genetic disposition to mental health disorders, and other causes that are still being discovered. The bottom line is that our minds are connected to our bodies, sometimes to find healing, we need medical intervention. Yet there is no other disorder that we stigmatize medical treatment for in quite the same way that we do for mental health disorders.

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3. Stress Is a Cultural Issue

It’s hard to untangle cultural issues from spiritual ones, they often go hand in hand. Yet, I think it’s worth mentioning that our culture is obsessed with living stressed-out lives that lead to burnout. While passages of scripture such as casting our cares upon the Lord offer us comfort (1 Peter 5:7), a part of describing what that may look like should include embracing a truly counter-cultural lifestyle.

We need to take time to map out for other believers a little more practically what healthy, peaceful Christian living should be. It’s more than throwing in 5 extra minutes of prayer time in the mornings, and your anxiety will be cured. It’s rejecting the notion our culture screams at us that rest is a sign of poor character.

Sabbath is a part of God’s model for our lives, yet how many of us embrace sabbath days in our week? Space for family, community, prayer, and reflection are a part of the Christian life, but how many of us have literally every moment of our day planned out to the point there is no space for these things? God says to trust him to provide, yet how many of us are striving in our jobs to the point where our minds and bodies are failing? Is that what trusting God to provide for all our needs really looks like?

Churches are struggling under this same cultural pressure. In March of 2022, Barna reported that about 42% of pastors have considered quitting due to feeling burnout. Spiritual leaders, I encourage you to begin to show your congregation how to find peace of mind by setting an example that embraces the idea of self-care, boundaries, and avoiding the hustle. God is not calling you to a life of striving, even in work as important as ministry, he is calling you to rest in his ability to use your life to minister to your community alongside others. Church, let’s be counter-cultural in that we truly take God’s call to peace and rest and begin to apply it to every area of our lives.

The numbers don’t lie, our world is struggling under the pressure. A part of helping us find God’s peace is to model what it looks like to live by the pace of grace.

psychologist counselor counseling mental health therapy awareness

4. Mental Health Statistics Don’t Tell the Whole Story

If you are a spiritual leader and you have not personally struggled with a mental health crisis, before talking about this issue, take time to hear the stories of the people in your church and community. Lived experiences offer insight that statistics lack. A face behind the numbers helps to add context to a topic. Conversing before preaching gives you the chance to check your blind spots before talking to potentially thousands of people that are looking for your insight on how to navigate these issues in their lives and alongside their loved ones.

Before my own struggles, I harshly judged those that confessed their own struggles with mental illness. My lived experience has given me the insight I needed to view others and ultimately myself with more compassion and care. Pastors and leaders run the same risk if they have grown up just like me in a church culture that only sees mental illness as a spiritual deficit. Hear how God has worked in the midst of these struggles and how medication, therapy, faith, and community have changed those with mental illness lives. Ask how the church can support them and what language is helpful for those who are dealing with a clinically diagnosed mental illness.

These questions help to make the preaching, discussion, and love felt by the church to its members so much richer.

After the most recent experience with a sermon that mentioned those who take anti-anxiety meds but failed to mention how these things can be tools for our healing, I left feeling the same guilt and shame that paralyzed me for years. Sometimes we don’t want to think of how our words may trigger someone else, but it’s important to understand that these topics are sensitive ones.

One statement that gutted me was that we can not live with gratitude and anxiety. I literally spent years so ashamed and frustrated because I was so grateful for my life, my family, and my God but went to bed at night battling waves of panic. I was dumbfounded by the paradox between what I practiced and how my body was feeling. You can be so very grateful and so very anxious. Life is complex, and how we find freedom is often different for every person. Leaders of the faith, as we talk about this very complex issue, let’s be open to hearing, willing to learn, and filled with love and care.

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Amanda Idleman is a writer whose passion is to encourage others to live joyfully. She writes devotions for My Daily Bible Verse Devotional and Podcast, Crosswalk Couples Devotional, the Daily Devotional App, she has work published with Her View from Home, on the MOPS Blog, and is a regular contributor for Crosswalk.com. You can find out more about Amanda on her Facebook Page or follow her on Instagram.

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