How to talk about mental illness in the church

I wish people in the church would talk more about mental health. Depression and anxiety and other mental illnesses continue to plague 1 in 5 people. 1 in 5! That means statistically, someone just down the row at Sunday morning service is fighting for their mental health. With a number that high, it’s hard to believe that stigma still surrounds the issue of mental health.

When I was struggling with depression, I found it very hard to be honest about my disease at church. “How are you?” someone would ask as they passed me in the hallway. “Fine,” was the easy answer. But what if I had said, “I’m having a tough time.” Well, that puts pressure on the other person to stop and listen. And I don’t want to interrupt them as they hurry to pick up their kids from Sunday School. Besides, I have Jesus as my Savior, so I should be fine, right?

Here’s the twisted thinking of a Christian depressive:  I’m in this all alone; No one can help me; I can’t tell anyone because they don’t have time to listen and I don’t want to burden to them; I’m a Christian so I shouldn’t be depressed; I have Jesus and all the blessings of heaven, so what do I have to be sad about? Maybe this is due to sin in my life; Where is God? Is He even here?

The truth is, I have Jesus, yes, but that doesn’t change the fact that I live in a broken world, and I am going to face troubles (“In this world you will have trouble…”) That includes mental health issues, like depression or anxiety or bipolar disorder. While my disease is mostly invisible (like heart trouble or diabetes) and there is no outward sign of illness, like a cast for a broken bone, the pain is very real and often very deep. And very isolating.

To share about my mental illness took the tenacity of several friends, who kept asking if I was ok. They noticed that something about my mood was off. I wasn’t as cheerful and upbeat as usual, and close friends began to notice the changes in my personality. Additionally, I had been talking with a counselor, and it became easier for me to admit out loud that I wasn’t okay.

Still, it took time.  I didn’t tell everybody, just those who kept asking. And it took a level of trust on my part, that the friends I told would understand and wouldn’t judge me as being a failure as a Christian. That they would see I was hurting, even as I was trying to trust the Lord for my healing.

And I have good friends. They were patient with me, and let me share as I was able to be more open.  They didn’t judge, and they accepted that I was struggling with depression and it didn’t mean I was a bad Christian; I had an illness.

I think it also helps if the discussion of mental health in the church comes from the voice in the pulpit. It helps me to hear the church leadership say that it’s okay, God loves me in the middle of my mess, and I am not condemned due to my mental illness.

It’s also great if the church offers mental health support, like the peer group Fresh Hope. This support group encourages folks who struggle with mental health issues to live a healthy life in Christ, in spite of the mental health challenge. This group enabled me to talk about my struggles with others who understood. We encouraged each other to remember the hope we have in Christ, and we shared our burdens and steps toward wellness.

So to talk about mental health in church, it takes:

  • time – for the person struggling to be able to share
  • time – for the listener to dedicate to understanding
  • honesty – for the one with the illness to be able to vulnerable and open
  • trust – for confidentiality and kindness and acceptance
  • openness – from the church leadership to talk about mental health issues
  • support groups – to encourage and support others who struggle

Let’s talk about mental illness at church. Let’s offer encouragement and support to those struggling. Let’s show the world that we’re not about judgment – we’re about living well in Christ, in spite of having a mental health concern.

“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” John 16:33 NIV

Social activity when depressed: an oxymoron

Depression is an isolating illness. It doesn’t involve a crowd.

Withdrawing from others is an indicator of depression. When I’m depressed, I don’t want to be with people, don’t want to do the things I used to enjoy with others. I find it hard to focus, to follow a conversation, or even get a joke. Depression wants me to stay by myself, sitting on my corner of the couch, safe in my cocoon of quiet. It causes me to become self-focused, very inward-gazing. It hinders my social interactions.

I find it hard to go out when I’m depressed, and so I’m intentional about scheduling events in advance that require I venture into public. Perhaps it’s a chiropractor’s appointment. Or Bible Study (which is very hard to attend if my mood is down). I’ve learned to build social activity into my weeks so that I have to be around people, even if it’s just a bunch of strangers in the grocery store.

To attend a planned event with a crowd is more difficult. I am most likely to succeed if I have support, like if my husband goes too. I can’t say “Yes” to attending a wine-tasting party or gala celebration if he’s not there – it’s too hard to put on a smile and make small talk for hours with a bunch of people I don’t know well. It’s hard enough to attend if he’s with me – the power of isolation is very strong and makes me want to say “No” every time we’re invited to any kind of social event. But going without him is more than just not-fun, it’s almost impossible.

I suspect this puts a lot of pressure on him – that I’m dependent on him for my social connections. But his presence gives me courage – I’m more outgoing and smile more easily if I know he’s nearby. The other day, he commented that I’m good with people – I guarantee that I wouldn’t have said hello to that other person, let alone had the encounter at all, if my husband hadn’t been around too.

This isn’t true all the time – only when I’m fighting depression. Usually, I’m right at home in group situations – I can come in and say Hello and introduce myself and smile, all with ease and comfort. I can be interested in the others in the group, draw them out with questions about themselves and engage them for long periods of time. I can lead the discussion or follow the flow of conversation easily, and I enjoy it immensely. When I’m not depressed.

It’s hard to explain this change in me to people who don’t know that I struggle with depression. Or maybe they know – I’ve told them – but they don’t really understand how hard life is when I’m depressed. They might think I’m flaky or just very inconsistent. They might even be offended when I back out of a commitment – this is one reason I don’t say “Yes” in the first place. I don’t always want to explain myself – I often can’t. I don’t want depression to be an excuse, even though it is often the reason.

For those folks who understand depression and my battle with it, I am able to say “No” without much guilt. In fact, I am more likely to attend a group, even in my depressed state, if I know they know I struggle. I can go and be myself and not explain everything. Usually simply saying, “Today is a tough day,” is enough for these friends, and they welcome me to come as I am.