Christians and Mental Illness

We should care because Jesus cares. -Pastor Rick Warren

    I want you to meet someone, let’s call her Christie. Christie was a sweet Christian girl from a good home, who never imagined that she could develop anorexia nervosa. Everything was fine until the emotional stress of moving across the country to college at the University of Virginia. Fear of the notorious “Freshman 15” gripped Christie, and it consumed her life. She decided that certain foods like pasta or meat were “forbidden” and she was ridden with guilt each time she gave in and ate them. She decided that it was necessary to exercise upwards of three hours per day to compensate for the calories she “wasted” throughout the day, and ate a small salad for dinner every night. She relished in the compliments that she got on her newly slim appearance, but soon, those compliments turned into concern. Christie was emaciated. She lost an additional thirty pounds from her already thin 5’8” frame. Her loved ones convinced her to go to the doctor, who told her that her resting heart rate was so low that she could have a heart attack at any moment, and he told her to see a psychologist. She was resistant at first, but realized through her visits to the counselor that she needed help. Through counseling, she began to ground her identity in Christ, and realize that the Lord loves and accepts her regardless of her appearance. Today, she has gained thirteen pounds, and developed healthy eating habits, and shares her story to help other people like her. (This story comes from “Today’s Christian Woman”).

    By the grace of God, Christie’s story ended with redemption, but unfortunately, not everyone experiences the same result. Mental illness can strike anyone at any time, and Christians are not immune. As you continue reading, I hope that you, my Christian brothers and sisters, will learn to love those who suffer with mental illness well. So my dear friends, let us begin:

My dear brothers and sisters in Christ, let us enter into this conversation with open and compassionate hearts, as I pray that we can all gain a better understanding of this sad, but very real issue that our churches just don’t seem to understand. Friends, I hope you understand that this problem is real, and that many people you interact with on a daily basis are quietly fighting a battle with mental illness. In fact, according to the CDC, 25% of American adults have some form of mental illness, and that is just what has been reported. This not just a secular problem that floats about outside the church walls, believers are not immune. Recently the Christian community was rocked by the death by suicide of Matthew Warren, son of author and pastor Rick Warren in April 2013, and only two months later, Melissa Page Strange, daughter of Frank Page, the former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, also committed suicide. Both fought lifelong battles with depression, and both kept it concealed for many years. If depression can strike the family of the man who wrote The Purpose Driven Life, and families whose lives were defined by church activities, it can strike anyone. I do not intend to be insensitive, my point is, the body of Christ cannot afford to be silent on these issues, because we never know what battles our friends are fighting every single day.

    Now I will address my brothers and sisters in Christ who struggle with mental illness. My dear friends, may I begin by saying, welcome? You are welcome within the body of Christ, and you do not have to hide, you do not have to feel ashamed. And I am sorry from the bottom of my heart if you have ever felt rejected or unloved by your church family, people are always fearful of what they do not understand, it is no fault of yours. May I also dispel some of the devil’s lies and society’s arbitrary labels? Your mental illness is not your name; it is not your identity. You are not depressed, you are not anxious, you are not anorexic or bulimic, you are not bipolar. Those labels do not define you, the God of the universe who knit you together in your mother’s womb, the God who makes no mistakes, the God who calls you His priceless treasure, His sons and daughters, His beloved, He is the one who defines you. Your mental illness is something you have, not who you are, and I plead with you, never let our adversary, or our society, tell you differently.

    And friends, can I also tell you that God is not angry with you, and you are not being punished. It is a difficult truth to grasp, but the fact remains that we are not guaranteed an easy life, and Christians are not exempt from the struggles of psychological illness, inasmuch as we are not exempt from physical illness. Psychologist Harold Faw writes, “the effects of sin can be divided into at least three aspects…personal sin, the sin of others, and the consequences of inhabiting a sinful world.” So I hope you understand that while sometimes we do things personally that account for our struggles, it is often caused by someone else’s sin, or simply the fact that we live in a broken world, and we are all under the curse of sin.

    So you know that I understand, allow me to tell you a bit of my story. Throughout my life, I had anxious tendencies, I was a worrier, even as a young child. As I got older, my parents got divorced, and I struggled with body image issues, and my anxiety went through the roof. My family knew that something was wrong, and I was very resistant to outside help. I thought that good Christians should not struggle with anxiety, that if I had more faith I could just make it all go away. I relented and went to counseling, and I was floored, it changed my life. I discovered that I was not alone, that God was not angry with me, and that it was not a problem of weak faith. My counselor helped me to heal through God’s word, and through open and honest discussion about my struggles. And when I said that it changed my life, I mean it. That counselor inspired me to use the things that I struggled with to counsel others, and to not hide my struggles in shame, and that is what I plan to do for the rest of my life.

Now to my brothers and sisters who do not struggle with mental illness: first, I do not want you to feel guilty, because I know that you struggle with many other challenges and trials. May I offer you some advice? Learn to suffer well with other people. Learn how to bear one another’s burdens in love. Allow me to put that in a more practical way: When you are together with the body of Christ, be transparent about the things that you struggle with. In doing this, you are creating a safe place for people to share their struggles, to bring their inner battles into the light, where they can be dealt with within the context of a supportive community who loves unconditionally. You see, people fighting mental illness often feel isolated, that no one understands, nor do they want to. So start the conversation, and when your friend confides in you, please do not use any of our well-meaning Christian clichés. Much in the same way, at a funeral, the family does not want to hear droves of people telling them that their loved one is in a better place. They would rather have someone just to be there, just to be willing to walk through the rocky path that is the Christian life, and begin to lift one another up to God, and then, you may find that both of you find healing through the grace and love of God that is in the midst of every storm.