I didn’t want to write this post. I didn’t want to admit, in public, that I struggle with, and suffer from, anxiety, stress and depression. Mental health remains fairly taboo; no-one really wants to ralk about it, and the subject is surrounded by so much misinformation and shaming that it’s easier to ignore it, to lock it safely away behind closed doors.
But that way lies guilt, isolation, despair. The reluctance and inability to have an open, compassionate conversation about mental health, particularly in the church, is making the problem worse. Our silence strengthens the suffering.
So, in the quiet and the dark of a winter morning, while I feel brave enough to write this in the first place, here are some thoughts on Christianity and mental health…
Mental illness is an illness
Too often, mental health issues are treated as a failing, a weakness, a lack of faith, and in doing so words are inadvertently weaponised, leaving the people hearing them feeling even more crushed and exhausted than before.
But if you have an infection, you get antibiotics, and if you’re diagnosed with cancer, you get chemotherapy. You pray about it, you ask trusted friends to pray about it. And so that should give us permission to do the same when suffering from depression, or anxiety, or stress. You’re allowed to go on medication. You’re allowed to seek counselling, you’re allowed to seek prayer. Because mental illness is illness, and you do what you’ve gotta do to manage it. And no-one has the right to judge or shame you for that, because it’s your mind, your body, your life, your relationships you need to look after.
And for the wider Christian community that has pastoral implications. While churches are great at mobilising when someone’s diagnosed with a ‘physical’ illness, we need to become just as effective at giving lifts to counselling sessions and offering to pick up prescriptions for antidepressants. The church is family, and families support each other, even when that involves breaking taboos and speaking into silence.
Grace and love abound
You may have been told you lack faith. You may have been told that your anxiety is a lack of trust in God, you may have been told that stress is you being Mary when you really should be Martha.
But this trivialise the problem, doesn’t it? It adds an extra layer of shame and guilt, and most of the time people don’t realise it’s happening. You sit quietly in a sermon as the words fly towards you like bullets.
Waking up feeling scared every day, no matter what’s actually happening, isn’t just ‘worry’. Having a negative physical reaction, shallow breathing and panicked thoughts when you see an email alert isn’t just ‘being a bit overworked’. Spontaneous bursts of anger or paranoia or despair aren’t healthy. You know that.
But in the middle of this, God doesn’t leave us. In the middle of this we are not condemned or damned. Because none of this is about the power of your faith or your acceptance of dogma. It’s about you being a child of God, ir’s about you being covered by grace, it’s about you being loved. And it’s about God being with you, even when you feel abandoned, even when you feel lost, even when you’re trapped in a fog that feels solid as stone. And if there are times you can’t believe that, try to let others believe it for you.
I’m a Methodist local preacher, and after one service someone thanked me for talking about grace, because they didn’t hear it enough. And that shocked me, because grace is at the centre of all we have and we need to communicate that with every breath. Maybe we need to get better at pointing our stories of grace in the right direction.
Gethsemane is important
We sometimes focus so much on Christ’s divinity that we imagine him walking through the world untouched by everything until he got to the Cross. But sidelining his humanity does violence to the Incarnation, and that has an impact on how Christ’s humanity impacts on our own.
That’s why Gethsemane is important. After all, no-one who sweats blood is unfamiliar with moments of stress and anxiety. There’s a moment of solidarity here, of recognition, of familiarity. Christianity is centred on God becoming human, and that means having experience of some horrific experiences, including crushing anguish. This should affect how we talk about things like anxiety, should create a space in which it’s safe to have conversations about stress. After all, these concepts aren’t alien to Christ himself, they shouldn’t be alien to our churches.
There are plenty of people out there struggling with mental illness. This needs to be acknowledged as a day to day reality, and we need to create an environment in which it’s safe to talk about this. And this doesn’t need to be scary; sometimes it’s simply about recognising that the problem is there; sometimes it’s about simply giving a damn. And in doing so, find a way out of the dark; find a light to walk towards.