The Church and Mental Illness

When I was a sophomore in college, I began cutting.

I used kitchen knives and when those were too hard to sneak away, I started biting apart plastic, pink razors so I could get to the blade. At least then I could do it, throw it away, and take out the garbage. Evidence destroyed.

Except the evidence on my body, of course.

There aren’t hundreds of stripes on my arm like some, no, I was much more strategic. I didn’t want people to know. Long sleeves and bracelets were my camouflage, and then when even those didn’t properly conceal, I moved to more heavily clothed places on my body where only my boyfriend might discover them.

The year before I’d been diagnosed with depression. I was sleeping through classes, and my waking hours were still foggy and hazy. Eventually I saw a psychiatrist who prescribed medication. I saw a psychologist. Then a counselor. And then another.

Things didn’t get better.

So, in the fall of my sophomore year, I snuck a kitchen knife from the house I rented with six other people down to my room, and I made the first small incisions into the side of my wrist, right on the outside bone of my left wrist. The scar is still very visible there. When people ask, I still don’t tell the truth. I get avoident and evasive, and quickly try to change the subject.

One of my counselors told me I needed to tell my parents, to be honest and open with them, because secrets breed more destructive behavior. It took me a long time, but finally, I went home one weekend and told my parents.

I sought out some trusted people at church. I admitted I was not doing well, even with medication and therapy. I showed them the scars on my skin, but we never got to the place of talking about the wounds inside, creating so much pain I had to find a way to release it physically.

Those I talked to were understandably surprised. We talked over the weekend, but when I went back to school, the silence from those I’d opened up to was suffocating. They’d promised to call and check in, and that never happened.

When I went back home, it felt like they were avoiding me. It was a hard, lonely, and terribly bumpy road to recovery, and the churches I attended did little to support me on my way.

I believe it’s high time for the Church, everyone, all churches, to step up their game to help and support people who have mental illnesses. I understand this is an intense, long-term commitment, but can we afford to do any less?

One of the biggest roadblocks to churches helping their members is a belief that mental illnesses are somehow a spiritual issue rather than a biological or deep emotional issue. That if the member only prayed harder or believed more or searched out that one sin holding them back, THEN they would be healed.

If only they memorized a few more Bible verses about worry, it would somehow lift the stranglehold anxiety has on their life. This argument certainly isn’t new (hello Job!), and even then, God refuted that suffering is directly tied to sin. How is it that so many years later, we are still giving the same answers as Job’s three friends? Shame and blame and trying to out some secret sin or unrighteousness didn’t work then, and it certainly doesn’t work now.

What it does is pile a sense of “I’m wrong” onto an already suffering human being. That they have somehow caused their own illness and that their faith is weak or wrong. Is it any wonder people keep leaving the church? Is it any wonder people keep dying? If the church isn’t proving hope and support, then what is it doing?

How does the church help its people?

One way is to see science and psychiatry as allies instead of enemies. The Bible is a life-changing book, but tossing out a few anti-anxiety verses to someone with chronic and clinical anxiety only adds to blame and shame, making perceived lack of faith seem like the cause of the biological issue.

Advocating against medication or secular therapy and citing pastoral counseling as the only correct method further alienates people who struggle with mental illness. Pastors are completely unequipped to counsel someone with clinical mental illness nor should they try. Instead of trying to be everything, churches should step into the gap between no support and the professional field to emotionally support and direct their members to appropriate resources, so they can be their healthiest selves.

By allying with science, churches can learn the difference between normal human worrying and clinical, chronic anxiety. Churches can learn how to properly support and set boundaries with those who have mental illness. The mental health profession cannot deal with all crises on its own, and churches are perfectly positioned to help a large number of people, even if only to destigmatize talking about mental health.

I listen to a podcast, CXMH [link: https://cxmhpodcast.com/ ], where the former co-host, Steve Austin [link: http://iamsteveaustin.net/ ], admits to hiding his anti-anxiety medication from the church staff because of the culture in the church regarding mental illness. He attempted suicide. He loves Jesus but the conditions in which he worked suffocated him to the point of believing that death was the only freedom.

This is entirely unacceptable! These are the kinds of stories that churches allied with science can begin to eliminate and they should try their hardest to do so.

As churches work toward partnerships with the science community and talk about mental illness, destigmatize the conversation, and know about proper resources, churches can help their members live the healthiest lifestyles possible.

I do not believe that churches should replace the mental health community. By no means! They can’t. What churches can and should do is be as knowledgeable as practical about the reality of mental illnesses, their prevalence, and evidence-based methods of supporting those who have mental illness.

History has not been kind to the church, or even society in general, in the caring for those who have mental illness and today, there is a serious mental health crisis in our country. Nearly 25% of the population has anxiety or depression or both. This is an epidemic!

What can the church do about this? Link arms with mental health professionals to understand our communities and be first in line to love and accept those with mental health conditions and to be the long-term community of support for these individuals.

There are many resources about mental illnesses, suicide prevention, and more! In small towns where there aren’t trained psychologists, churches can be working to close those gaps by providing evidence-based support where needed.

Our healthcare system alone cannot deal with this mess and churches are perfectly placed to be a team member in this battle. The church, however, must first stop treating mental illnesses as spiritual conditions or punishments for secret sins. It must acknowledge the realities that science has uncovered and work together to create supported and healthy communities.

So what will we do? What will YOU do?

I’ve started meaningful conversations with my church pastor and sent him information on days, weeks, and months of the year that are about mental health or suicide prevention. I’ve given him other resources to be able to talk from the pulpit about this. It’s time to break the silence. It’s time to stomp out stigma. It’s time to understand, love, and support our brothers and sisters who suffer in silence, because honesty feels unsafe.

It’s time, church, to stand up and stand with those who suffer. Stop tossing out prayer and faith as solutions and start working toward real understanding and knowledge of how to help. We are losing too many people to disillusion, and death and the church is perfectly placed to help with this crisis. So let’s link arms and do this.

Cari Jehlik is a wife, mom, disciple of Jesus, runner of stupid long distances, and author. You can find her at https://carijehlik.com, in the twitterverse @CariJehlikAuth, on facebook, Instagram, and youtube under Cari Jehlik, Author. She has been featured on Not Your Pastor's Podcast, and she contributed to the anthology, Heart of a Child, which can be found here. She is currently writing a work of science fantasy. 

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