Handling Mental Health in the Church, and How to Break the Stigma Surrounding It

(Photo by Selma Komisky)

Handling Mental Health in the Church, and How to Break the Stigma Surrounding It

By Maxine O’Loane

Ever felt like you’re overtaken by stress? Find it hard to get out of your head and let anxiety get the best of you? What about depression—does it feel like your “funk” has turned into a daily struggle and you have no idea who or where to turn to? There are two things that I want you know, one is that you’re not alone, and two, there is help and you shouldn’t feel hesitant to seek it out.

I’m going to touch on something that has a tendency to be treated as a bit of a taboo for decades: mental health, faith, and the church. You may or may not have come across this topic in conversation, but it is definitely something that should be addressed. From my experience, whether it be conversations I’ve had with others, interactions I’ve observed, or comments that have been made about mental health within the church, therapy should be a last resort, “If you’re still dealing with that, you must not be praying hard enough or giving it to God,” and the ever so subtle, “It’s just spiritual warfare, don’t let the enemy win.” Although these comments are usually made with the utmost sincerity, they imply that there is some type of choice involved, or that the individual experiencing it lacks faith.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand that people have “those days” where they’re not themselves, and severe cases where erratic behavior can be completely attributed to spiritual attacks. However, this is not always the case especially when it comes to someone struggling with their mental health. Whether it is depression, anxiety, or battling with schizophrenia, mental health is something everyone struggles with at some point in their lives. But unfortunately, when it comes to seeking out help, at least within the church, most are hesitant to do so. Though there are numerous reasons as to why, the most common are the fear of being judged and having their faith questioned. Something I feel that we, as the church, need to realize is that we’re called to be like Christ and love on those who are not like us and who the world so easily writes off. In this case, I’m talking about those struggling with their mental health and how, instead of judging or shying away from any interactions with them, we should embrace and love on them to the best of our abilities.

The story of Legion, the man possessed by multiple demons, comes to mind. The characteristics used to describe this man are very similar to what some individuals may be feeling today. The book of Mark describes him as such, “For a long time, this man had not worn clothes, lived in a house and had lived in a tomb…many times it had seized him and drove him to a solitary place.” When you take a step back and think about people suffering from a mental illness, people may be perceived as this. The world sees a label indicating someone is “not normal” or “sick,” and writes them off because of discomfort, while believers are called to simply see the person and disregard the label completely.

This is where the stigma embedded in the church comes into play. Some assume mental illnesses (depression, anxiety, etc.) are simply after effects of a “lack” in trust or loss of faith, when, in reality, it may very well be an imbalance (hormonal or otherwise) or residing anxiety from a traumatic event. The truth is, we may never fully know, but we should carry ourselves in a way that will reassure them that they are being heard and helped rather than judged. When we’re able to make individuals feel safe enough to ask for help like Jesus did with Legion, then who’s to say similar miracles can’t occur today. If the church is able to eliminate the negative stigma regarding how to help those who are dealing with mental health, then, like Legion, they may be described as “sitting there, dressed, and in his right mind.” So, in essence, whether you are dealing with anxiety, depression, stress, or know of someone who is, be like Jesus and love on them, pray for them, and encourage them to seek counsel, either from a therapist or even a friend to be a listening ear.