SHARING BURDENS: THE CHURCH AND MENTAL HEALTH
Jenny Um | JUNE 14, 2018 | 8 MIN READ
Compartmentalizing brings some semblance of order into our lives of chaos. For example, if you have a toothache, you schedule an appointment with your dentist. If the maintenance light to your car comes on, you go to the mechanic. And if you are wrestling in your faith perhaps a pastor is a likely person you could turn to.
While categories help us manage our lives, it can also make it difficult for people to know where to turn to when one comes across an area of life that is not so easily compartmentalized.
Such is the case for mental health issues. In some Christian circles, there is a sense of skepticism and wariness that prevents some people from seeing a mental health professional. Some of them might feel like the secular world cannot help with their problems and they should only rely on themselves or the church. Others who need help might feel like they cannot seek help from a secular perspective because the Christian people around them will judge them for seeking outside help.
But remaining so rigid in our vantage points and categories can sometimes be more harmful than helpful.
Helping or Hurting?
I will never forget when a young Christian woman came to me for a counseling session and shared her experience of talking to her pastor about her periods of deep depression.
She had mustered up the courage to finally share her struggles to him. His response? Her depression is a form of pride. I could tell by her facial expression that what he had said made her feel dejected and ashamed.
I truly believe the pastor meant well and that he genuinely wanted to speak words that would help her. But I wish he had tried to understand her experience of depression before forming a conclusion about its roots.
Yes, there may have been a spiritual component, but I wish there was also room to consider if depression ran in the family, which it did. Or if there was any recent distressing event in her life, which there was. Or to hear about her family support system, which she lacked. All of these are potential contributing factors when dealing with depression.
My client’s experience allowed me to understand two things. 1) Perhaps Christians do not open up about certain issues in the church because they fear they won’t be understood, or even worse, they will be judged, and 2) We as a church can do better to learn how to lovingly counsel someone in time of need.
Christians, we must deal with this. Because for someone who is struggling with an of area life that brings shame, the church can be a dangerous place.
The Aftermath of Shame
Once we feel shame, we go into hiding. That was Adam and Eve’s natural response after they ate the fruit of knowledge of good and evil, and we respond in a similar way by hiding behind our religious activities. As long as we are singing praise, serving, and showing up to all the spiritual events, no one would ever question that we are doing well.
That’s why you would never know that the person sitting next to you at church might be silently suffering. They believe they are the only ones that are broken and fear the rejection that would come if anyone found out.
And the more I spent time in my field as a therapist, the more I noticed the great divide of open brokenness between churchgoers and those outside the church. While I encountered hurting people from Monday to Friday, at church everyone seemed to be so whole.
Whereas before I might have believed the lie that I was the only one who had to fake it, now I have this ominous sense that there are more people hiding within the church that have a secret, sin, or area of shame.
I admire people like Shelia Walsh, a Christian who openly shares her journey with severe clinical depression, because rather than letting this illness define her or question her faith she says this, “My brokenness is a better bridge for people than my pretend wholeness ever was.” Like her, I believe God can use not only our spiritual gifts to build the church, but He is also able to take our brokenness to heal others.
The church is a place of hope and redemption, not a place to go and hide, though Satan and shame tells us otherwise. God has used others so immensely in my life to minister to me, but it wasn’t until I started to be transparent about my own weaknesses and pains that I started connecting to people in ways I never experienced before. But the only times I felt like I could be vulnerable with those in the church was when I felt like I had the safe space to do so.
Application for the Church
The most lethal combination that prevents us from overcoming an obstacle is when we are fighting battles but walking alone. If we are a part of a church community, we are commanded neither carry the burden alone nor to ignore those who are burdened. We must help one another.
For those who are hurting: Break the cycle of shame and identify someone in the church who you feel safe with to share your story. Most likely there is a part of your story that will resonate with him or her.
For those who want to help others: If someone shares with you something he or she is struggling with, be quick to hear and slow to speak. Listen, and seek to understand.
A common response I hear from my clients is that when they opened up their hearts to someone in the church, they were met with head knowledge that made them feel unheard. Sometimes I think we make the mistake of citing Scripture too quickly and lose sight of the person’s suffering.
I don’t refute the power of God’s Word in our lives, but the power of God can show up in many ways. And I believe expressing empathy is one of the forms of God’s grace and the greatest gift we could offer to someone.
Decreasing the Stigma
We would never look solely to the church to address our physical ailments. When we see the cancerous cells, the broken bone, or the results of our blood work, we seek a medical professional. Things become less clear when it comes to a mental illness, dealing with past traumas, or managing life’s relationships.
God is ultimately our healer, but He uses people within and outside the church as vessels. Church has its limitations and that’s when seeking professional care might be appropriate. At other times, it takes your church family to pray for you and be there for you in ways a therapist cannot.
If you are going through something or know there is an area in your life you need to deal with, my encouragement for you is to ask God to lead you to the right place or person. Don’t let shame or stigma keep you isolated any longer.
And church, let us be there for them.
Jenny is an Associate Marriage and Family Therapist. She is married to her best friend, Paul, and enjoys spending time with the other love of her life, their rescue dog Clayton.