Speaking at the Democratic National Convention last week, the singer Demi Lovato took advantage of the powerful platform to advocate for mental health care in America. “Like millions of Americans, I am living with mental illness,” she said. "Too many Americans from all walks of life don't get help, either because they fear the stigma or they cannot afford treatment."
“Mental illness” is a scary-sounding category that encompasses a broad array of invisible struggles. Look around you on Sunday. Most likely, there are Christians next to you suffering silently from anxiety or panic disorder, bipolar disorder (from which Lovato suffers), dysthymia or major depressive disorder (from which I have suffered). Whether through personal experience or through someone we know, those of us whose lives have been touched by mental health struggles know that getting help can be the hardest part.
Women are twice as likely to experience mental health struggles as men, thanks to major hormonal challenges such as pregnancy and menstruation. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 30 percent of women between 18 and 44 years of age are affected by depression, and many of them don’t get the help they need. (My own disorder went undiagnosed for almost six months before I got help from doctors and therapy, and even then, the recovery process has been hindered by bad advice, mistreatment, and poor choices about whom I can rely on.)
Unfortunately, many of us who have spoken up in church communities have been told to “pray harder” or “have more faith.” These suggestions might be well intentioned, but they often discourage and isolate those of us in desperate need of support. “It’s a knee-jerk reaction to judge people when they’re vulnerable,” wrote actress Kristen Bell of her own story. “But there’s nothing weak about struggling with mental illness. You’re just having a harder time living in your brain than other people.”
She’s right: Struggling with an illness of any kind makes a person vulnerable, and a sick brain puts a person in a particularly vulnerable state because it’s often impossible to discern the problem from the inside. The sick brain can’t see the sick brain. More often than not, someone in the midst of a depressive episode or panic attack can barely put forth a cry for help.
As people living in Christian community, we should be ready to offer practical knowledge and gracious support to people experiencing mental health crises. With that in mind, here are three ways I believe every church is best positioned to help:
Faith in something better.
“Have faith that on the other side of your pain is something good,” Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson told the Oprah Presents Master Class. He wished someone had relayed this idea to him during a low point in his life when he was “crying constantly.” His message mirrors the “It gets better” campaign, but many people suffering from depression or other mental health issues know that sometimes it gets worse. Everyone needs a reason to keep trying. I’ve been in enough therapy groups and doctors’ offices to know that the only reason people keep looking for answers in the face of crippling despair is because they believe something will help: drugs, doctors, relationships, therapy, or sometimes the sheer freedom of living at rock bottom. Nonetheless, I've seen the best results when I (and others) put faith not exclusively in doctors or drugs or therapies, which have their limits, but also in God. He is the reason I still believe in “something good” on the other side of my pain.
If you know someone in your church like me who is suffering, come alongside her. Pray for her. Avoid cheap platitudes like “have faith” and instead offer practical support by checking in on a regular basis to let her know she’s not alone, or by asking about her treatment, which is a way of acknowledging that the illness is real.
Millennials are on more antidepressants than any other generation. According to the CDC, more than 6 percent of 18-to 39-year-olds have been prescribed antidepressants. My generation might as well define ourselves as “behind” in our careers (40 percent of unemployed people are milennials), salaries, and personal lives (marrying late and moving back in with our parents). No wonder we’re depressed. On top of that, the hours we spend in psychiatrists’ or counselors’ offices dealing with symptoms of a disorder (or the side effects of medication) often feel like “lost” time. While dealing with my mental health problems, I have burned through a lot of time and money as well as emotional and relationship capital—all resources that I feel could have been spent better elsewhere. I find it reassuring to know that Christianity offers a promise of restoration greater than anything lost (Joel 2:25; Job 42:10–17). In the Bible, people often fall down, their lives fall apart, and yet God raises them up again.
With that in mind, if you encounter someone in your church who is struggling with suicidal ideation or any form of hopelessness, first affirm their pain, then offer them the grace of optimism.
The "seasonal" perspective.
“For now” is the mantra my therapist gave me to get through depressive episodes and hard days. Ecclesiastes 3 provides a similar mantra: “To everything there is a season.” Mental health, too, is composed of seasons. I am currently in a season for antidepressants, and although it may be cyclical, I hope it will eventually end. For most people, circumstances change, the brain’s reactions change accordingly, and the appropriate therapy also changes in sync with the situation. With mental health challenges, maintaining a long-range perspective is key to survival. The hardest, most important thing to do is simply to persevere.
If someone near you is facing a discrete mental health episode or a lifelong challenge, encourage her to name the season she’s in, remind her that seasons often change, and journey with her as she takes it one day at a time.
“I don't think I'm fixed,” Lovato shared in the MTV documentary about her “recovery” in a residential treatment facility. “People think that you're like a car in a body shop. You go in, they fix you, and you're out. It takes constant fixing."
Much like spiritual health, mental health is an ongoing need for every human being. Although those of us who struggle are each responsible for ourselves, we also rely on the powerful support of our community to ensure that we get the care we need. It starts with awareness within each local church. Just as an increasing number of secular figures have spoken up publicly, Christians should step forward to be, as Lovato put it, “proof that you can live a normal and empowered life with mental illness.”
The Bible is filled with exhortations to care for the most vulnerable among us—those who cry out for mercy and feel they have nowhere to turn. Those of us who face mental health crises are among the most vulnerable. We need your recognition. We need your prayers. We need your presence. And we need to be part of the church community, especially as we struggle to find extra grace.