But as I matured, and more people I cared about began sharing their struggles with brain challenges, the question of mental illness became personal to me. I realized that I needed to dig in and try to come to a better understanding.
Why was this happening? How could I help the people I cared about? These were people who loved God, who prayed for deliverance from their illnesses, yet still they suffered. Where was God?
The Elephant in the Room
Official estimates of the rate of mental illness among Americans range from 18% to 30%. Simple math tells us that at every church service you or I attend, a sizable chunk of the people sitting in the seats with us are suffering in this area. Yet how often do believers even discuss the topic among ourselves, much less hear it addressed from the pulpit?
When I decided to write this post, I wanted to hear other Christians’ perspectives. I wrote a four question survey and posted the link to it on my personal Facebook wall, inviting those who live with mental illness, either themselves or in a loved one, to share. I was stunned by the number of responses I received.
It is clear that mental illness among believers is a tragically under-discussed topic. As children of a loving God Who calls us to compassion, we are obligated to love our brothers and sisters, no matter what their struggles are – including those we do not, and perhaps can not, fully understand. Talking openly about mental illness is a step in the right direction toward helping those who suffer feel less marginalized.
When Your Brain Betrays You
There are spiritual aspects to every area of our lives. As Christians, even when we make decisions about how we spend our money, what we do in our free time, or how we care for our bodies, we consider the spiritual component.
Yet we do not neglect the reality of the physical. And in the case of mental illness, there are almost always neurobiological and neurochemical issues at play.
Unfortunately, many well-meaning Christians approach mental illness purely from the spiritual side. They preach: pray more, find the sin in your life and get rid of it, deal with unforgiveness. While these are obviously things that every Christian needs to address, the implication that mental illness will be cured by being more holy ignores two important realities – none of us will ever be holy enough on our own for all of life’s challenges to vanish, and mental illness starts in the brain, an organ that can be damaged.
Think of it this way: if you broke your arm, you would go to the doctor to get it set. If you were diagnosed with cancer, you would undergo chemo. It just makes sense that we take care of our bodies with the resources available to us. Would you pray as well? Of course you would! And you would feel safe asking for prayer at church.
Yet with mental illness, not only do we expect fellow believers to be healed without medical assistance, we shame them to such an extent that they fear sharing their struggles within the church body, depriving them of much needed prayer.
One of the questions I asked in my survey was, “What do you wish other Christians knew about your mental health struggles?” Overwhelmingly the response was, “I did not choose this.”
Here are some other responses:
- “It’s biologically driven and outside of my conscious control, it exists in me always and I do my best to stay healthy (mind and body) but like cancer or diabetes, there are times it controls me and the medical and personal interventions are not enough.”
- “It’s not because I don’t pray or trust enough.”
- “It is not satanic, it is not because I have not prayed hard enough or God’s punishment for some unconfessed or unrepentant sin or I am not cured because I do not pray properly. I did not do something to deserve this (nobody deserves this).”
- “I wish they knew I wasn’t evil. When people hear about my struggles, they put on their best sad face and give a short speech about how God is in control and will make everything better and this is all for the best. But as well as they might hide their true feelings from themselves, their faces and actions show the truth. They clearly show either fear or disgust, sometimes both.”
- “We aren’t failures. Don’t reject us. It doesn’t mean we are doomed to live this way always.”
- “We are all human and subject to illness and dysfunction. We are all capable of bad behavior. We are all worthy of love and forgiveness.”
I thought this response was especially compelling:
“People, for the most part, really do prefer to be happy. They don’t choose to live in depression. Remember the brain is just another organ in the body and it works just the same as all the others. Chemical breakdowns in the body produce illness and we see that as a physical, medical issue. Chemical breakdowns in the brain are the same.
I’m blessed, I have good insurance, a good level of monetary provision, and am on an anti-depressant which is a replacement chemical that enables my serotonin receptors to work. Because the chemical problem in my body organ is fixed, I am able to NOW choose to be happy or not. I can control my thoughts because the physical brokenness is fixed.
Until the physical brain is fixed, people can not ‘just get over it.’ If you know someone with a mental illness or meet someone with one, please be as gentle and respectful as you would with someone who had heart problems.”
A Christian Approach to Mental Illness
So what do we do? How do those who suffer and those who care about them approach the problem of mental illness from a Christian perspective?
Many believers who struggle with mental illness told me that they find comfort in God’s Word.
In the multitude of my anxieties within me, Your comforts delight my soul. Psalm 94:19
One woman shared that “My mind must be renewed with the Word of God every day.” Another person explained that scripture helps her to properly assess her feelings: “Because I have the wisdom in the Bible I am able to stop and ask myself in various situations, ‘Is this true?’”
Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. John 17:17
Many sufferers also find prayer essential to daily coping.
- “I find myself turning to prayer more frequently. I know God loves us all and is fighting for us. I know I am never alone. I have hope.”
- “Praying helps. It stops the racing thoughts and focuses on something else other then my worry.”
- “In this battle prayer is my weapon, and the prayers of many are a mighty force.”
What about demons? Some Christians argue that all mental illness is spiritual. There are a number of examples of Jesus delivering people from demons in the Bible (such as in Mark 5:1-20 and Luke 4:41). Most believers will agree that there are sometimes cases where a problem is completely spiritual in nature. Yet clearly not all illnesses are, as evidence by this passage:
And he healed many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons. Mark 1:34 a
As one Christian psychiatrist said, “If mental disorders are the result of demonic activity, then why do the symptoms almost always disappear when treated with the right drugs?”
More than anything, what sufferers want from other Christians is compassion.
Bear one another’s burdens. Galatians 6:2
As one woman wrote, “I need more hugs than most, more affirmation, more acceptance. I don’t like that, but I need it. It’s HARD to ask for help.”
God provides comfort through others. Paul himself wrote of being comforted by the arrival of Titus:
But God, who comforts the depressed, comforted us by the coming of Titus. 2 Corinthians 7:6 (nasb)
We were made to need one another!
Often forgotten in the discussion about mental illness is the toll that these challenges take on the people closest to the sufferer. The stress that results from coming alongside a loved one in pain is very real, and feeling helpless in the face of illness is heartbreaking.
I invited family and friends of those with mental illness to respond to my questions as well. The one commonality between the response from caregivers was when I asked if God had brought any blessings out of their experience. The blessing they saw was that loving someone with mental illness had caused them to become more compassionate – precisely the need that most sufferers expressed. Isn’t it beautiful how God works, even in the darkest places of pain?
Can God cure mental illness? Of course He can. There is no limit to what God can do, and in fact several people wrote in the questionnaire that they had been healed. But God has a different plan for each person. Paul was affected by something he referred to as his “thorn.” He prayed for God to take it away, but that was not God’s will for Paul’s life.
So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. 2 Corinthians 12:7-10
The Lord used Paul’s “thorn” to grow him in dependence on His grace.
Where is God in Mental Illness?
So where is God in all of this? Those who shared with me said:
- “Source of peace.”
- “Strength and hope.”
- “He has a plan for my life. This is one part. The journey to Him isn’t a straight, easy path.”
- “My faith encourages me to keep going, I am not alone.”
- “He is my rock and my focus point when I’m in great pain. He is my shoulder for when the times are hard no one gets ‘it’.”
- “I pray for clear head and calm heart often. It helps.”
- “I believe the Lord is teaching me about reliance on Him.”
- “When I am panicking or immobilized in fear, I have God’s promises from the Bible to get me through. But without my anti-depressant, I can’t recall or believe the promises.”
I also asked “Are there any ways God has used mental health issues as a blessing in your life?” This was a harder question for most to answer, and that difficulty underscores to me how deeply painful this struggle is. One person put it well: “Of course, but I don’t see/know it yet :)”
Here are some blessings that respondents shared:
- “Hitting rock bottom with my mental health forced me to realize that I didn’t really know or rely upon Him – my faith was weak, and often, truly, I was worshipping something other than Christ. So it’s a huge blessing in that it brought me to the foot of the throne, and showed me that He really is the only way. But it was a big price.”
- “A deeper sensitivity and compassion to those who suffer.”
- “Yes, I stopped being afraid of people with mental illness. I never would have chosen this but I am thankful for what I have learned.”
- “I have been blessed with a very dear friend who has gone through similar issues and we have been able to support each other in (some) bad times.”
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For just as the sufferings of Christ are ours in abundance, so also our comfort is abundant through Christ.” 2 Corinthians 1:3-5
Loving Those Who Suffer
Followers of Jesus have not signed on for a magic carpet ride. If someone tells you that all your problems are due to sin in your life, just point to the book of Job. We serve a great big God, but we are still in a broken world while we are this side of heaven.
Jesus Christ gave everything for us, and if we are going to grow to be more like Him, we must grow in our willingness to give of ourselves. I did not want to step out of my comfort zone and try to understand mental illness and those who suffer from it, until people I love were impacted. That was my selfishness, and sadly, it is mirrored in churches everywhere.
Not a single person who answered my survey volunteered to have the condition they live with. They want to be delivered of it! Living with a mental illness is incredibly difficult, both for the person who has it and those who love them. So yes, this means that if you step into the life of someone with mental illness you open yourself to challenges.
But “Love one another” has no caveats. Truly loving is the simplest and the hardest and the most valuable thing any of us will ever do. Loving those who suffer means allowing Christ to work through you in a practical yet profound way.
I feel strongly that this is a topic that needs to be more widely discussed, and as such I feel led to continue writing about it. If you have experienced mental illness in your own life, or in someone close to you, I invite you to share your thoughts in this questionnaire.You can also share in the comments on this post.
(Please understand: I am not a mental health professional. I am a sister in Christ who loves people who live with mental illness. My understanding of the realities of mental illness, from both the physical and spiritual perspectives, continues to grow and mature, but I know I have plenty to learn. What I have shared in this post are my thoughts at this time in my life, and the thoughts of those brave enough to respond to my questionnaire. I welcome your feedback.)