How are you really? People ask casually ‘how are you?’ all the time, but never intend to have a more than surface level conversation. But I genuinely want to know. How are you?
For those of us that struggle with mental health, the holidays can feel like an overwhelming burden rather than a source of joy. Because we are coming up on that time of year again, I wanted to take some time out to be frank about mental health and the church.
If there’s a stigma about mental health in society at large, I would say in the church, it’s considered downright taboo. Because a Christian with “mental health issues” is simply a Christian that does not truly put their faith in Christ.
There’s a scene that plays out all too often in Christian circles. Someone is struggling with anxiety. A well intended person starts giving that person ‘helpful’ verses like:
Matthew 6:25-34: 25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27 Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life 28 “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. 29 Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 30 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31 So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.
Isaiah 35:4 – Say to those with fearful hearts, “Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you.”
1 Peter 5:7 – Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.
I understand this inclination. Trust me. I have many of these verses highlighted in my own bible trying to find peace in my own mind. To the friend trying to help the anxious/depressed/bipolar/etc person – trust me when I say, we know you mean well, but often times, sending a scripture alone just makes it worse. This thinking leads down a dangerous theological road where the church uses ‘mental illness’ as a way to pile on to someone who’s already hurting.
The number of times I’ve heard something like “You’re depressed because you are failing to trust God.” or “Being depressed means you are failing to be joyful in all things or to give thanks to God.” Is insane. You wouldn’t tell someone with a broken arm “well, it just hurts because you aren’t trusting God to take away your pain – After All, Psalms 147:3 says “He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.”” That would be crazy, right?
Mental health IS physical health. Just because there isn’t something you can physically see, doesn’t make it any less real. And there are ways to treat that. But just sprinkling some magical scripture on what is probably an open wound only hurts the wounded more.
So what can we do instead?
To the person wanting to help a hurting friend: Everyone is different, so ask your friend during a time where they aren’t hurting what the best way to support them is. Some ideas include sending a text letting them know you’re thinking about them, even if you get nothing in return. Invite them to things, even if they often decline. Offer to sit with them, even in uncomfortable silence.
To the person who is hurting – know that you’re not alone. You aren’t a bad Christian, and you probably can’t just ‘pray it away’. Your feelings are valid. Your experience is valid. And when you’re ready – we’re here for you. To support you. To talk through our own experiences. To remind you that it may take several different types of medication before you find what works best for you. To offer suggestions of counselors who are helpful, and ones to avoid. To pray with you. To study with you. You are loved. You are an image bearer of God. And he loves you so much.