(September 16,2006)

In September 2006 I had an article published online by the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA). The title was Church Support: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly. It’s no longer online, but the following is what I wrote to my blogging pals.

We all know how bad the stigma towards those with mental illness is in society. But I think stigma is at its worst when it presents itself in the church community. And, let’s face it, there is a lot of ignorance, especially in that community. I think this is not only unfortunate, it’s tragic.

All too often the message that comes from the pulpit is that we should be able to deal with all our emotional problems through spiritual means. Many Christians don’t believe in the medical aspects of mental disorders and encourage their friends to “Stop taking those pills. Taking pills shows that you don’t trust in God. If you’re feeling down, you’re probably not right with God. Confess your sins, and you’ll be alright.”

Now this ignorance is of course not present everywhere. There are many of us, myself included, who find wonderful support in their churches. In fact I think the support from friends who share your faith are the best you can get. Those who try to emulate the character of Christ by sharing their non-judgmental, compassionate love with those who are suffering give better support than can be had in almost any other segment of society. They encourage their sick friends to follow their faith and to cling to the knowledge that God IS there, even if he doesn’t seem to be. They become God’s representatives to their hurting friend.

But bring into this picture a misunderstanding, uneducated church friend or pastor telling you that there’s something wrong with your relationship with God, and the results could be tragic. In this kind of situation the church can do more damage than any other part of society. When a person who is already feeling the pain and negativity of depression is told that the fault lies within himself or that he is possessed by a demon (yes, there are still some who believe this) – I can’t imagine anything worse for a person with mental illness.

The biggest problem a newly diagnosed person has to overcome is the acceptance that she needs to take psychiatric medication. So many fight against treatment and thus have a huge struggle with recovery. The process of acceptance is difficult. How much worse it is for someone of faith to be told by their church friends not to take the medication – in fact, to be told the medication is somehow “evil”.  I recently read a pastor’s blog claiming that the use of psychiatric medication was “sorcery.”

Christians are called to be “followers of Christ.” As such we need to love as He does. Our role is to be compassionate. It’s God’s role to judge, not ours. Dr. Harold G. Koenig, M.D., author of “New Light on Depression”, said that the unconditional love that Christ displayed and that Christians are called to emulate, is “the ultimate long-term antidote for depression.” I believe that to be true.

It’s through the love my church friends have shown me that I have come to fully grasp how deep God’s love is. That helps me hang onto my faith, no matter what. This is what gives me courage and strength to continue, even when my road turns black.

NOTE: One important thing to mention: I don’t believe most churches need to be so harshly criticized any longer. They have made great strides in improving their awareness.