Mental health among Christians is a serious issue, the suicide rate is climbing within the church and in society as a whole. The church needs to be the community that God intended us to be and to show love to our brothers and sisters and to the lost and hurting communities around us.
Have you been there? In one of those tough times when the nights seem endless and you wonder if you will ever see another sunrise and if you will ever face opening the curtains again. Sometimes life just dumps on us from a great height and there is nothing we can do about it. But hey, we’re meant to be Christians and everything is meant to be good for us, we have Jesus! We’re not meant to be discouraged or upset, life can take its best shot and we will keep soldiering on.
The truth is, that simply isn’t the case. Mental Health is a huge issue within the church and for many years one that has been swept under the rug. It’s something that isn’t talked about because some people feel it doesn’t fit.
Some people live their lives close to the edge of despair, threatening at any moment to fall into the writhing hungry sea beneath. For others, events happen and the world they had built up, even in Christian circles, can come crashing down around them. How about leading worship on stage and suddenly feeling like you’re going to die, so much that you have to leave the stage later to find out you have suffered a panic attack, and they are going to keep coming.
We may be Christians, but we are still human. Personally I always felt like quite a solid person, anchored in my faith, but my life has been touched with the dark stroke of poor mental health.
My first encounters with this issue were not my own problems, it was my older sister. It’s something we will never know all the causes of. Certainly her physical health and her particularly brittle form of asthma was one trigger, the way that it affected her day to day life and her outlet was to self-harm, sometimes in the extreme, she spent a fair amount of time in and out of hospital for either asthma or self-harm and then held under section for her own safety.
Yet at the same time she was an outgoing, friendly and resilient person of strong conviction and faith. It was through her trust in Jesus as a child that led the rest of our family to take steps of faith. As she grew up she went on summer mission to do beach missions and also was very involved in other organisations. Later on she was very involved in a number of churches and found a community in the churches she attended. She never lost her faith even though everything was too much to bear for her.
The Dark Night
My own personal dark night of the soul happened a few years ago. Marital break-up was very rough on me mentally. I remember sitting in a local town desperate to talk to someone, I had gone to my old church because I knew someone should be there that morning, but they didn’t hear me knocking. I sat and looked at the railway bridge, when I was at the church youth group nearby we had known people who had got on there and thrown themselves off. I considered this option for a while.
I sat in the open-air garden and stewed under the dark cloud on that bright and breezy day. In the end I rang my older sister because I knew she would understand. She came and we went and got a drink and something to eat and talked. My resolve took hold, I buried myself deep in prayer, Bible Study and attending just about any church where the doors were open and that worked for me. God walked close to me at that time in a way I had never known before and struggle to glimpse again now.
About 4 months later she had passed away, unable to live any longer with the deep physical, emotional and mental scars that marred her bright life. Two days before she passed away I had asked her to bring a Bible for someone I was witnessing to, she was still committed, her faith had not deserted her and it was still strong and vibrant.
I wish I could tell you that I have the answers for those who suffer from these dark moments when the sun cannot be seen and every silver lining has a dark black cloud. I don’t. However I do know that the church should not add to the stigma that someone probably already feels. I don’t know how many times people asked my sister “have you tried praying about it?” Or those that would come alongside only to arm themselves with gossip about the latest escapade. This is not how the church is called to behave!
The more Pentecostal believers also look to the spiritual realm as a cause and I am sure some felt my sister had a demonic influence, that being said she had taken the Dr Neil Anderson Freedom in Christ course, she even illustrated some related study guides for it. For my sister it was not a demon, or a bad spirit and it wasn’t sin in her life, or the life of an ancestor. No she wasn’t perfect but that was not a cause.
GOD Loves You
Having said that I think one of the biggest things that she dealt with was the guilt. Feeling like she was a Christian but every time she self-harmed she was a failure before God. This, I think, is true for many Christians who struggle with their mental health and other issues too. We are meant to be free but our thoughts and feelings take us to places we don’t want to be, after it is over we can be wracked with guilt because it shouldn’t happen, and we feel like we have lost God’s love.
Let me be plain. God loves you. He loves you if you are depressed. He loves you if you self-harm. He loves you no matter how many times you have told yourself that it has got to stop, but you just can’t help it. He loves you, He wants the very best for you and yes, you can talk to Him about it, tell Him it all, rant, scream, shout, cry, rage, collapse in a puddle whatever, God is a big God, He can take it! When you’ve taken it to God He will still love you, nothing can change how He feels about you.
Talking to God is great, but most of us need human contact. Find someone you know you can trust, someone who can handle the truth of your life and ask them if you can talk. Many churches have people who are trained counsellors, but you may be just as happy talking to a real friend. Be careful not to overwhelm them with your revelations, but be frank and honest and get them onside to help you pray.
How Can We Help?
In churches we need to be open and accepting about our own struggles – sometimes we don’t want to know how you the minister overcame your crisis of faith in a three point sermon and now everything is rosy. We want something real, of course we want to know your victories, but we also want to know the areas where you struggle so that we can see that it’s OK for us to struggle too.
The biggest thing a church can do to help someone is to just be there, to listen. Don’t try to necessarily understand, but be understanding. To be ready to come at the drop of a hat. To not just be a friend in the good times, but also the hard times. Advice isn’t always needed but companionship often is.
There are a whole load of helpful tips for churches and individuals, as well as resources, at this Christian initiative website http://www.mentalhealthaccesspack.org/