How the Church can respond to mental illness

Hi everyone! Earlier this week, I shared some of my own story about dealing with depression. I have been so encouraged by the response to it. Thanks for reading and responding! Lots of joyful tears were shed, reading and praying over the responses. Today I just wanted to write a brief post on some ways I think the church can respond to mental illness. This is pretty simple... and not authoritative in any way. Just my thoughts, based on experience and readings.

Let's talk about it

For me, the first jump I take in my head or heart when it comes to any issue is what can we DO about it. And I think some would say that, yes, we need to talk about mental illness, but more importantly, what can we DO? My answer is: talking about it is the first step in doing anything. This isn't talking about it just to make people aware, like some advocacy campaign. This is talking about it to normalize it, de-shame it.

In the 48 hours after I posted my fairly simple blog post about my own story, the responses that came in were overwhelming (in the best way possible!). I heard from people via comments, Facebook messages, emails, who thanked me for opening up. I heard words like "it resonated with me" or "it made me want to try church again" or "it's giving me courage to open up and talk to someone." All I did… was talk about it. I told my story.

I realize that these issues of mental illness are sensitive ones. I am not advocating that everyone publicly tell their story. I only chose to do so after lots of prayer, and years of working out the same things with the people closest in my life, whom I am really vulnerable with. So, while not everyone should necessarily tell their story in a public way, I think we can be more honest and more vulnerable with the people in our lives. And I think churches can work to encourage and equip those who feel led to share on a broader level. Just sharing a story might just let enough light into the room so that others feel like they have hope in their own life.

Before we get to "do-ing," pushing for programs or counseling, etc., we need to talk about it. In order for any programs or counseling to work, people have to 1) know about them and 2) feel brave enough to try them. What happens when we talk about it, is we loosen the grips of shame, and make a pathway for those behind us to open up and find help and healing.

Let's be comfortable with "I don't know"

The issue of depression and mental illness at large is complex. I've seen two responses at large to this issue: one is to just pretend it doesn't exist. Because it's so complicated, and we can't seem to understand it, we get very uncomfortable… and so we stick our heads in the sand and just make a note to pray for them. There is also the inclination to oversimplify it. But oiling down such a complex issue to simple cause-and-effect is not only naive, but could potentially be dangerous.

Like I said in my post on Monday, in the seasons of my life when I was depressed, "dealing with it" has been a combination of things. It's been my faith in God, holding onto Jesus' promises; an amazing network of friends, counselor, pastors, family; exercise, eating well and a number of other things. Just like the root cause of it can't be simplified down to one thing, the solution isn't simple either. So let's stop saying "Just pray more," "You just gotta have faith!" or "When's the last time you…?" Like Ann Voskamp put in a post earlier this week, let's stop offering cliches, and instead offer our hands. Let's stop offering platitudes, and instead offer our time. Let's choose to be present with people in their suffering, rather than try to explain it and solve it.

David, the writer of the psalms and a man after God's own heart, was wrecked by anguish and depression. There are psalms in which his pain and grief are inexplicable, and he feels overcome. Depression is not a respecter of persons. It doesn't differentiate between Christians and not. Even he, and many other people since him who have walked with God, were depressed. It is not an issue of "more faith" or "less faith." Like Rebekah Lyons said in her CNN column, "Let's stop shaming people with the judgment of spiritual weakness."

Let's not be afraid of counseling or medicine

Most pastors I know are not equipped to handle the counseling of mental illness. I love them dearly, I respect them, but most pastors are just that… pastors. They aren't counselors or psychologists. They have degrees in leadership, or theology, but very rarely in counseling or therapy. I have had numerous, encouraging and helpful conversations with a pastor I love deeply. But still, I talked to a therapist. Why? Because this is her calling, her vocation, she has been trained extensively, and she is good at what she does. She has helped me uncover things and learn things about myself, love God more deeply, and grow.

So, churches need to know and be able to refer their congregation to great counselors. I think one of the best things a church can do is do the legwork needed to find viable and excellent counselors in their area. (Not all are equal!) And then, acknowledge when someone needs more than just a few appointments with a pastor, or an intensive few days of healing. These things are both great and viable, but sometimes counseling is in order.

Finally, there are times, when medicine is needed. Just as a diabetic needs medicine to address their insulin levels, or a broken bone needs setting, depression sometimes needs medicine. There is absolutely nothing less-spiritual about this. It is not giving in or taking an easy way out.  It is time for Christians to recognize and affirm the value of medical treatment for mental illness.

So let's not be afraid of counseling and medicine. Better yet, let's affirm them as viable tools for healing, restoration and growth as a person and as a believer.


As The Church, let's work to create an environment where people who are struggling can feel safe and find grace, refuge and hope.