( October 23, 2007)

Why don’t people within the church feel comfortable discussing mental health issues?

I think a major reason is that people don’t understand mental illness enough to be able to talk about it. They need education but are often not willing to be educated. Often it is fear. People fear what they don’t understand and they can’t get beyond the block that creates.

In churches and in Christian writing the reason for emotional problems has frequently been attributed to spiritual problems. A person attending a Living Room group recently told us of how she told her pastor that she was being treated for depression. He told her to “praise the Lord and you will feel better.” Instead of receiving compassion, he gave her the message that all she needed to do was to turn to God. In other words, if her relationship with God was better, she would not be depressed. It was as though he was blaming her for the depression.

Illnesses like depression are too often not recognized as the diseases they are. If the problem is emotional it is believed to be within our power to change. If the problem is within our mind, it is believed it is our own fault. People have trouble understanding that the brain is an organ and, like any other organ of our body, something can go wrong with it. This affects our feelings, thinking, and behavior. People, and especially Christians need to understand this.

I think what would help would be for church congregations to hear testimonies from people with mental illness. They need to hear stories that illustrate the medical nature of their disease. They need to hear that people can be good Christians while at the same time dealing with mental health issues.

Stigma within the church is the most damaging – more so than stigma within secular society. This is because a person’s faith in God is brought into question. When a person is struggling with mental illness, the worst thing for him to hear is that his relationship with God is at fault or that the devil is causing the emotional turmoil.

The church, as the body of Christ with its message of His unconditional love, is in the best position to help people with mental illness. Christians are in the best position to give Christ-like support. This is the kind of support we who suffer expect from them. This kind of support will help us keep the faith we so badly need. But Christians need to educate themselves, to learn to understand, to be compassionate and not judge.