One Way Your Church Can Stop Hiding Mental Illness

DepressionMental illness is not as obvious as a broken leg, but it’s just as real.

According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, one in five Canadians will experience a mental illness in their lifetime. Almost half of those who suffer from anxiety and/or depression have never sought medical attention. In one study, 84% of clergy say they have been approached by a suicidal person for help (cited in Preventing Suicide by Karen Mason, page 183)–and yes, in case you’re wondering, I am among that 84%.

So mental illness is a reality. It touches many lives directly or indirectly, in the church and outside of it.

One way that the church can respond to mental illness is to stop hiding it, and one way to stop hiding it is to recognize that the Bible includes stories of people with mental illness.

King Saul was tormented by an evil spirit (1 Samuel 16:14-23). He was so distressed that he didn’t know what to do with himself, and his attendants finally suggested that they find someone who could play the harp for him and maybe he would feel better. King Saul agreed to try it, so they arranged for David to come with his harp, and whenever King Saul felt tormented, David would take his harp and play. We might think of this as an early example of music as mental health therapy.

The great King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon was suddenly taken ill.  He couldn’t stand to be with other people. He couldn’t stand to be in his beautiful royal palace. Daniel 4:33 says:

He was driven away from human society, ate grass like oxen, and his body was bathed with the dew of heaven, until his hair grew as long as eagles’ feathers and his nails became like birds’ claws.

Some time later and just as suddenly, the king’s health was restored, and he became well again.

Psalm 22, which has so many parallels with Jesus’ death on the cross, may also be understood as the cry of someone with severe depression (verses 1-2):

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
    Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
    and by night, but find no rest.

The apostle Paul writes of “a thorn” in his flesh, which may have been a physical ailment or perhaps depression or some other kind of mental illness. Whatever it was, he described it as “a messenger of Satan to torment me,” something that he had brought before God in prayer three times, but that still plagued him (2 Corinthians 12:7-8).

The man living among the tombs in Mark 5 is perhaps a clearer illustration. He was so disturbed that he would often howl out loud and hurt himself with stones. He needed to be restrained from hurting himself, but he was so strong that he would tear apart his chains. Today, his symptoms might possibly be diagnosed as some form of schizophrenia.

Miraculously, Jesus healed the man, and when he was clothed and in his right mind, the man wanted to join Jesus and travel to the next town with him. But can you imagine, Jesus actually turned down a potential follower! Jesus wasn’t intent on surrounding himself with more and more disciples.  Instead, Jesus said to the man (verses 19-20):

Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.” And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him; and everyone was amazed.

Today when I talk with people who are impacted by mental health issues, when we pray together, I wish I were like Jesus with the miraculous power of healing. I long to relieve their torment and to see them restored to health. Unfortunately, miraculous healing is not one of my gifts. Maybe that’s not one of your gifts either.

And yet like Jesus, we can pay attention to those who are dealing with mental illness, we can listen, we can pray, we can be part of that community of friends to surround them with healing presence.

Those who are dealing with mental health issues may be tempted to withdraw—like the man who was healed from his mental illness was eager to get away from his usual surroundings and go away with Jesus. But for the man’s ongoing health and healing, Jesus returned him to his own community.

For his sake, I hope they received him well and were a healing presence for him, just as I hope that the church today can be a healing community for those who are dealing with mental illness.

Becoming more aware of mental illness in Scripture and in our lives today is just one way that the church can stop hiding mental illness. Sharing stories, praying together, having a Mental Health Awareness Sunday as my church did yesterday, can also help to lessen the stigma and contribute to greater understanding.

Your turn: Does your church have a Mental Health Awareness Sunday, or something similar? In what other ways does your church respond to mental illness?



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18 replies

  1. Thanks so much for this! So needed. Sometimes, people can’t just “pull themselves up by the bootstraps.” I am so aware of this, from my own–and my family’s–experiences.

    I posted about mental illness awareness last fall: I hope this is helpful. http://wp.me/p4cOf8-ho

    • Thanks for your comment and for sharing your post – such stories can be difficult to share and to hear, but they give us an important window on the impact of mental illness. Thank you.

  2. April, this is a wonderful appeal for compassion and understanding toward those with mental health issues and illness. I am also one who has suffered, and know how easy it can be to feel shamed and stigmatised by others, including church members. Thank you for opening our eyes and urging us to open our hearts.

  3. Our daughter has anxiety issues related to her hormonal cycle. She has been very open about this at church and as a result many people have come to her and shared their own problems with depression. They never felt free to do so until she was open about it. Their fear of being judged was too great. When someone else showed no fear, it helped them to also speak up. We need more openness about these and other issues that have been shame and guilt related.

    • In my sermon yesterday, I mentioned one woman who discovered that sharing her own story of depression was both healing for her, and also an encouragement to the mental health of others. That sounds a lot like your daughter being open about her experience and so freeing others to share about their own. What a beautiful picture of community even in anxiety and fear.

  4. Thank you so much for sharing this.

  5. Thanks so much for this blog post. It’s an issue that we need to get more handles on. I’ recommended the topic to Leader magazine at our last editorial board meetings, and they will be publishing an issue on it in a while.

    • I’m glad to hear that, Elsie. I appreciate the way Leader focuses on different topics and approaches them from a number of different angles–thinking biblically and theologically, the impact on people of different ages and backgrounds, in worship, in daily life, etc. I look forward to seeing your issue on mental health.

  6. Excellent post, April. What a good idea to help people look at these biblical stories through the lens of mental health. And how helpful it is to people to know that the church is one place they don’t have to pretend.

    I wrote about my own experience with depression here, in case it is useful to anyone reading these words who is suffering now. http://www.shirleyshowalter.com/2010/04/24/a-story-of-hope-for-those-who-struggle-with-depression/

    • Thank you, Shirley, I hadn’t seen your earlier post, and appreciate your sharing it here. What a testimony to the power of weakness and how honesty can strengthen relationships. I’m glad for the special bond you had with your students, for the strength they gave you during that time, and the way you were able to move forward once your strength was restored.

  7. Thanks for writing, April. We shared your post on our Anabaptist Disabilities Network Facebook page. That’s an amazing statistic about pastors being approached by suicidal people. What did your church do for Mental Health Sunday?

    • For this Sunday, our worship leader introduced the theme by sharing some of the ways that mental illness has touched her own life, she also read a poem written by someone who struggles with mental health, I included some of this blog post in my sermon, we shared a few stats and had an insert of practical ideas, plus the children’s feature and congregational songs were all planned with the theme in mind. We’ve had Mental Health Awareness as a worship theme before, but this year we were asked to test some worship material from Communitas (https://www.facebook.com/CommunitasCare). Here’s the link for the Anabaptist Disabilities Network Facebook page too for readers interested in following up: https://www.facebook.com/ADNetCommunity Thanks for sharing this post and letting me know!

  8. Thank you for this honoring and honest acknowledgement of the reality of mental illness among believers. We all can use a dose of compassion now and then! Sharing this now through Twitter, and praying for others who need to see it…

    • Thank you for sharing and praying–those are also good ways to help churches stop hiding mental illness. As part of our worship, I will often include prayer for those dealing with “physical and mental illnesses” instead of focusing only on the physical. It’s a small change in wording but I think can help to raise our awareness not just on Sundays designated for Mental Health Awareness but at any time.

  9. What a great idea. I also remember reading a surprising statistic about the number of clergy who battle mental illness in one guise or another. Your list of biblical examples is no small comfort for those who fear being stigmatized in a way that just isn’t the case for most illnesses. Thanks for this.

    • oops, sorry I missed your comment until now – I’m glad this article is a comfort, and I hope a way of raising awareness without further stigmatizing people dealing with mental illness. There are other examples in the Psalms of crying out to God that I think could also be included in a more complete list.