What I Wish the Church Knew About Mental Illness: Part 3

Stigma is still a struggle

In the modern age, increasingly fewer Christians believe the lies we once did about Mental Health. Few of us have been told that our illness is not real, or worse, that we need some sort of exorcism. So we’ve removed the stigma surrounding mental illness… right?

Wrong. Dead wrong.

You may not think the stigma is there, but we feel it.

The idea that the stigma surrounding mental illness is gone is laughable for those of us in the thick of it. It’s alive and well, and has penetrated the church. This is not only wrong, but deadly. In 2017, suicide rates in the US hit their highest point since the end of World War II, increasing 33% since 1999. Not only are millions dying, but they are dying without Christ because we as the body did not help them through the church doors.

The stigma usually presents itself in subtle ways: exclusion, offhanded comments, and the like. If you don’t suffer from a mental illness, you likely haven’t seen it. So where does it come from? Simple: expectations. Expectations that we place on each other and ourselves. Many Christians going through this have gotten the painful sense that in some way, they have let someone down. Sometimes it’s a brother or sister in Christ. Sometimes it’s God himself.

For example, the Bible commands us to rejoice in Philippians 4. For those with depression or anxiety, rejoicing doesn’t always look “happy.” For some reason, that doesn’t always sit well with others. So for your comfort, the smile on our face may be fake. We may walk around feeling like a zombie. We may silently have a panic attack during a ministry meeting. Keeping it together takes so much energy that it makes staying in church hard.

A friend of mine put it best when describing her struggle: “It’s hard to go to church when some people are telling you that you shouldn’t be depressed because God will bring you joy. Sometimes I don’t feel joy,” she said. “I don’t have the energy and spirit to worship every Sunday, and I don’t want to portray how deeply I’m hurting inside on the outside during a church service, when everyone is worshipping and I don’t even feel like standing up.”

The 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 can be difficult to build relationships. “The individual’s success in a church setting, like it or not, is heavily dependent on their social skills,” said another friend of mine. “I get the impression that the church tends to be inclusive of people who have mental illnesses that hinder social interaction, but in practice they often get excluded.”

Unfortunately, the way a person is treated by the church can become the image they think God has of them. “If my church is disappointed with me,” they reason, “God must be too.” Our role as ambassadors of Christ in this world is not just symbolic; it is literal, and sometimes a matter of life and death.

So what’s the solution, neurotypical Church? By no means do I have a perfect one, but I do have some advice from the other side: sort through your expectations of your Christian brothers and sisters. Are they Biblical? Do they grant grace to those who struggle? Remember Christ: He came into the world not to be served, but to serve. He spent his time among the broken rather than the elite. And He didn’t just stumble across them, He sought them out to offer what they really needed: himself. Are you seeking out the broken in your congregation and allowing them to come as they are? Do you expect them to conform to Christ, or to an image of your ideal friend?

As Christians, we are called not to be conformed to this world, but transformed by the renewing of our mind (Romans 12:2). Our understanding of God and the gospel should transform the way we view sin and salvation, but also the world, people, and community. Struggling people are not anomalies to be dismissed, but fellow image-bearers to be loved.

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