What I Wish the Church Knew About Mental Illness: Part 2

“It is not good for man to be alone.” This was the Lord’s declaration upon looking down at the first man. From the beginning, God’s design was for us to live in community with one another. Couples leave their father and mother to become one. They bear children and the cycle repeats. The church meets regularly to worship, and in the process, a family is formed.

Relationships are key to the health of the church, and our spiritual lives. But for those who wrestle with mental illness, forming them can be a near-Herculean task. In this second of four posts, we will explore another key truth that the church should understand about their members with mental illnesses:

Building Relationships is Hard.

Why? The effect of mental illness on relationships is a well-documented phenomenon, but not a simple one. Factors like stigma, self-stigma, and social anxiety play a role.

When I began having suicidal thoughts at 16, my social circle shrunk. I confided in a close friend, who subsequently spent less and less time with me. She told me, “you were depressed and I didn’t know how to handle it.” A boyfriend at the time did the same, comparing me to a dark cloud.


Stories like that are all too common. As a result, we avoid social connection, anticipating the rejection. Mental health professionals have termed this idea “self-stigma.” To fit in with the majority, we have to hide one of our greatest struggles. (For more on stigma, stay tuned for Part 3).

This runs counter to the vision of the church set forth by the Apostle Paul in his letters, where he commands the church to bear one another’s burdens and pray for one another (Galatians 6:2, James 5:16). Jesus invited the least of these to come as they are. So should the church. But too often it operates like a worldly social circle, accepting birds of a feather and rejecting all others.

A friend of mine, who joined the church later in life, shared with me how her struggles with depression kept her feeling like an outsider. “I really liked the environment, but I always felt like I had to hide how I felt,” she said. “I didn’t want to give the church a first impression of someone who was depressed.”

Issues with an anxiety-bent take their toll on relationships too. Anxiety often manifests in avoiding social contact and large crowds, and cancelling plans, which are usually taken as a snub. I can attest to the taxing nature of noisy, crowded church parties, and the looks of indignant disappointment I’ve gotten for cancelling plans.

To be candid, what sucks most about all of this is that when we’re struggling most, relationships are hardest to maintain. But that’s also when those relationships become most vital.

Luckily, my friend found a place in her church community where she didn’t have to hide anymore. “Having that support system that understands you, prays for you, and listens to you has made all the difference.”

Another friend of mine grew up in a church ambivalent to mental health issues. Since moving away to college, he has also found an accepting community, and can attest to its power. “To have people that genuinely want to know what I’m struggling with, and how they can help, is life changing,” he shared. “That’s what the body should be about: people who show the love of Christ to one another, invest in each other, and help each other — just as Christ did while He was walking with us, and how He still works years later.”

Unfortunately, not everyone finds that. So to the neurotypical church: how can you help?

First, understand. Knowing the ways we struggle relationally is important. Then, you can avoid taking it personally. When we cancel plans on you, it’s likely nothing to do with you. In fact, we want to spend time with you. We just feel too overwhelmed at the moment. Instead of getting offended, try asking questions like “are you feeling okay?” Or “how can I be praying for you?” That approach invites transparency and builds trust.

Once we’ve answered those questions, keep in contact. You may have to initiate a lot, especially at first. Don’t take that personally either; we’re probably either overwhelmed or afraid of “bothering” you. Something as simple as a “praying for you” text is endlessly meaningful. To have our struggle not only validated but ministered to is a rarity, and a great way for you to be the hands and feet of Jesus.

Finally, have patience. Mental illness doesn’t just go away, and neither do its most inconvenient symptoms. Before you suggest we try running, more prayer, more time in the Word, or facing our fears, chances are we have. If there were a magical cure, we would have found and taken it by now. I promise, we’re trying. Christ has been endlessly patient with His church. We, then, have a duty to pour out that patience on each other.

This list is by no means exhaustive. There are many specific ways to care for those in your congregation battling mental illness, and many conditions not mentioned here. But as my friend pointed out, it begins with the character of Christ. The example He set on earth was that of a personal God who did not shy away from even the messiest afflictions. He ignored no cry for help, even when He had other places to be. He touched the most contagious with frail human hands. He wept with the grieving. To be effective and obedient, our cry as His church must be, “if you did, then so will I.”

One response to “What I Wish the Church Knew About Mental Illness: Part 2”

  1. […] struggle to socialize while dealing with anxiety and depression (which I covered in my last post: What I Wish the Church Knew About Mental Illness: Part 2) is another example of unmet expectations. When we don’t interact the way others expect, it […]


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