Let me start by saying that I am a pastor, I still believe in the absolute power of Jesus to heal the heart, and I’m still a huge supporter of church counseling and ministry. But I feel compelled to raise my voice and say:
Therapy is not demonic.
Taking antidepressants is not a sin.
Seeing a psychiatrist is not anti-Christian.
And those who suffer from mental health problems are not a failure.
Lord knows we need more openness in our congregations because (and this is a fact) 50% of adults will develop depression, PTSD, anxiety, self-harm, eating disorders, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder, or some other mental illness in their lifetime.Lord knows we need more openness in our congregations since 50% of adults will develop depression, PTSD, anxiety, self-harm, eating disorders, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder, or some other mental illness in their lifetime.Click To Tweet
Mental Illness Needs to Be Discussed
Half of the people reading this article already have (or currently are). And for the sake of our family, friends and church leaders, we need to break the shame. Jesus is the hope for each and every one of our needs. He’s the miracle worker who, “healed every disease and every sickness.” And when Jesus healed the leper, the demon-possessed, the broken-hearted, he never blamed them for their condition. Jesus is not a religious leader who will condemn us if we seek help, Jesus is the high priest who understands our weaknesses.
“My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.”
Yes, that was Jesus talking about himself in Mark 14:34. He knows how it feels. Jesus knew Lazarus would rise again. Still, he wept.
Because embracing pain is not negating faith. It’s actually part of being in the likeness of God. So have hope, but don’t deny your emotions. Pay attention to them. Feel what you feel. And enjoy the coming resurrection.
To talk of a person’s mental illness like it was a result of a sin, curse, or demon possession is to further stigmatize, shame, and isolate those who are struggling. It is stone throwing people who need understanding and a helping hand. Yes, it is possible that sin and curses and demons are part of the issue, but we need to focus on the person. And admit that we don’t have all the tools or all the answers for the different situations that need attention.
The Church Can Learn
The church is the place many turn to while in crisis. We cannot keep turning away the most vulnerable among us. We have to learn how to approach and relate to their specific needs.
As Brandon Peach wrote,
“Most churches probably have the very best intentions when dealing with issues of mental illness. Like the rest of society, however, the Church may misinterpret these clinical conditions and respond to them in ways that exacerbate them—and as a result, demoralize those suffering. Christ, the Great Physician, came to heal the sick. As His body, it’s time the Church leads society in helping to do the same.”
In the past the Body of Christ has had three dominating approaches when dealing with mental illness:
- Treat it exclusively as a spiritual issue.
- Ignore it completely.
- Treat it exclusively as a medical issue.
My Personal Story
A few years ago I needed to visit a psychiatrist to talk about my depression. It was the first time in my life where I actually felt helpless, totally unmotivated and OK with the idea of suicide. Being able to talk to a professional who could specifically diagnose me and recommend treatment was liberating. Actually, at that moment it was the godliest thing I could do.
However, I also needed friends who listened. I needed my leaders to pray. I needed God’s word and encouragement. And in certain moments, I just needed to ignore it all and focus on the things I love to do.
There are too many families in our congregations who are struggling with addictions and depression and all sorts of abusive behavior. I know that because that was our case. And in the middle of it, prayer was great… but it wasn’t enough. Sounds heretic just writing it. But it’s necessary that we talk about it.
I spent 8 months with a professional counselor who taught me how to manage my anger, improve my moods and take ownership of my situation. He gave me books to read, coached me with technics for relaxation and he saw Catherine and me together for marriage guidance. He used specific evidenced-based treatments to treat my conditions and used cognitive behavioral therapy (stuff I would have never considered before) because after many years in full-time ministry and after 10 years of terrible behavior as a husband, I needed professional help.
I used to be so ashamed to share it. Now, I celebrate where God has taken me individually and where God has taken us a couple. And I am so glad I didn’t just go for ministry, or a one-time repentance fix, but actually invested money and time with a health care professional.
It was not perfect. A few times I considered punching my therapist (Hi Dolan! Love you bro). But after months of weekly sessions, I am absolutely convinced that God took me there.
Healing Often Takes Time and Work
I have heard stories of people getting healed in one moment. It’s happened in my own life in other circumstances, and I pray that for us all. But the reality for most is that the hurts and rejection of the past, combined with an actual illness of the mind, require more time, more care and more attention. It starts with us pastors getting help when necessary. It continues with the church as a whole empowering people to do whatever it’s necessary to be made well. It demands open conversations with those who have overcome, and with those who are still struggling.
“The beginning of love is to let those we love be perfectly themselves, and not to twist them to fit our own image.” Thomas Merton
It ends with us caring more about people (and their health) than about our limited opinions and hindering theology. The religious mindset wants to control how people heal. It wants to determine the rules of engagement for all scenarios and situations. But spiritual maturity is demonstrated by the increase in realization of the help and grace you need. And the heart of Christ is to heal the brokenhearted.
Maybe you’re the broken-hearted in this scenario, can I encourage to ask for help? And if it takes visiting an actual doctor to help you with your situation, then I know for a fact that Jesus will be holding your hand the whole way through. He did it for me. Jesus is the hope for everyone struggling with mental illness. And the hope for the church that’s ignoring it. Might be a good time to stop pretending and start attending to this real need. For my sake. And yours.
By Carlos A. Rodríguez. Copyright © 2019, Carlos A. Rodríguez, all rights reserved. Used and adapted with permission.