This week I read Jonathon Seidl's struggle to admit something. He refers to it as his “secret.” And when you hear his anguish in confessing it, you might think he’s admitting to an unsolved crime or an illicit affair. His big secret is the fact that he’s been diagnosed with anxiety and OCD. Before getting help, he would regularly re-read e-mails upwards of 50 times, convinced that there was an error he was missing or a tone that he needed to correct. He would lie in bed convinced that he had forgotten to lock his truck. And in cleaning the house with his wife, he would get annoyed if things weren’t done in a certain order: “The floor before the dishes!” He would often tell himself, “This isn’t a big deal,” but he couldn’t let go of the fact that it was a big deal to him. Admitting what was going on inside him and getting treatment for it, was a significant turning point in his life. Unfortunately, being a Christian actually made that more difficult for him than the average person.
The denomination that Jonathon grew up in classified mental health issues like his as a “lack of faith” problem. Many Christians agree. In a research study by LifeWay, half of evangelicals surveyed said that they believed prayer alone can heal mental illness. Now in a sense, it’s true to say that prayer can change anything and prayer can heal anything. But Lifeway President, Ed Stetzer, “worries some Christians see mental illness as a character flaw rather than a medical condition. Christians will go to the doctor if they break their leg … but some may try to pray away serious mental illness.”
According to one study, one in four people suffer from some kind of mental illness in any given year. How Christians respond can drive people into shame and hiding as Jonathon experienced, or give comfort, support and encouragement. In the LifeWay study, 10% of people said that they had changed churches as a result of how Christians responded to their mental illness and another 8% stopped attending church altogether. We all have a responsibility to support people in their struggles.
I view mental illness through three lenses:
1. Counselling lens: Mental health issues may have triggers. Trauma, abuse, loss, and conflict are just a few of the things that can bring on symptoms of mental illness. Seeking wellness while ignoring these triggers leads to frustration.
2. Spiritual lens: Some symptoms of mental illness can be brought on or exasperated by sin. Psalm 32:3 says, “When I refused to confess my sin, my body wasted away, and I groaned all day long” (NLT). And spiritual strongholds and demonic activity can play a role. A healthy relationship with God, and regular fellowship with other Christians, gives someone the strength and wisdom to begin to address the problems that they’re facing.
3. Psychiatric lens: Many mental health issues aren’t related to traumatic triggers or spiritual struggles at all. Because of the fall, every aspect of creation is broken and in decay. Migraines, glaucoma, kidney stones and bipolar disorder are all part of the fall. Just as a broken leg needs a cast, mental illness often requires psychiatric treatment and medicine for effective treatment.
Let’s work at being a faith community where talking about mental illness doesn’t have to be marked by shame or sound like an admission of failure. And let’s care for one another as we go through periods of struggle and distress, physically, emotionally or spiritually because, as Psalm 34:18 reminds us, The LORD is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit. For more information, check out some of the free on-line resources available from Focus on the Family: http://www.thrivingpastor.com/MentalHealth/.
In awe of Him,