Churches aren’t very good at addressing—or even acknowledging—mental illness.
Neither is our country, of course. Those fortunate enough to find their way to a good therapist—and to have enough money or an insurance policy that covers counseling—have enough of a struggle working through the demons of traumatic experiences. Those who don’t? We see the results every day on the news—murdered co-workers, abused spouses and children, suicides, and more.
We have work to do as a country, as experts point out every time there’s another mass shooting. Since Friday’s massacre in Virginia Beach, almost every news story speculates about what might have led the shooter to open fire on his colleagues.
But the Church? Most evangelical churches tell us we just need to pray for the conversion of the tormented, and when that doesn’t work, we write them off as deserving the eternal hell their lives have become.
And progressive churches? Most of us don’t even acknowledge mental illness in any meaningful way. Pastors sometimes make connections in sermons about Gospel texts that tell of Jesus casting out demons, but we limit our conversations about the very real demons of our own time to small groups, where anxious family members ask for prayer.
But what do we really do as Jesus’ emissaries on earth to reach out in meaningful ways to people who struggle with depression and anxiety or who have family members who are bipolar or who are addicted to drugs or alcohol?
We tell our stories to those we trust and ask for prayer. When I told the story of my abusive father to evangelicals in the church of my childhood, I was advised to pray for my father and to testify about Christ to him and, that if that didn’t work, to consider it a privilege to be beaten for the sake of the cross.
I didn’t find much more compassion among more liberal people of faith, however. I shared with a few of my liberal friends, who came from various faith traditions, that my father had stopped drinking the year I started high school and that he had never abused my mother or me again once he was sober, though his abuses as a drunk left all my siblings and me scarred.
I found out later that a person of faith who is also a staunch liberal and feminist told one of my friends that she just didn’t believe my story—that men who are abusers don’t stop being abusive. This person has devoted her life to giving aid to women in abusive relationships, but she doesn’t have an ounce of compassion for the men who, during their own childhoods, were once the abused children for whom this person shows so much compassion.
We liberals like to think we’re more enlightened than the evangelicals of my childhood. But how many of us would be understanding of a pastor or a teacher or an elder who shared his or her struggles to overcome the trauma of childhood or admitted to wrestling with depression or anxiety?
I know from talking with such people that they rarely admit their own struggles to the people they are trying to lead. When people in our communities of faith suffer from a physical ailment, such as cancer or stroke, we rush to their aid, making meals, driving them to the doctor, or providing whatever help is needed.
What do we do, though, when a member of our community asks for help because of depression, anxiety, or mental illness? We pray for them, perhaps because we’re not really sure what else to do.
I’ve been reading a book entitled Blessed are the Crazy: Breaking the Silence about Mental Illness, Family and Church. The author, Sarah Griffith Lund, is ordained in the United Church of Christ, and she shares how being able finally to share the story of her father and her brother took away some of the power of keeping her story “in the closet.”
What would we progressive Christians do if a pastor stood up in the pulpit and said, “I believe in the power of Christ to heal us, but I’m standing here today to tell you that I’m struggling with depression or anxiety—that part of the reason I’m a minister is that I was drawn to other people who are struggling—but I’m finding that I sometimes wonder where God is when I can’t remember the last day when I was truly happy.”
I hope that we would embrace that pastor, just as he has embraced us when we share struggles with him that we would never admit out loud to others, even in a small group of trusted people.
But I’m not sure we would. I suspect that we’d question whether that person ought to be in a leadership position. I hope not, but I fear so.
Would we ask whether members who get a diagnosis of cancer or heart disease should have seen it coming when they have a terrible diet and don’t exercise? Perhaps it might be a momentary thought, but I doubt that it would keep the congregation from rallying to support those members.
What would we do, though, if a church leader admitted to mental illness and asked for help? I’m not sure because I’ve never heard a pastor, church leader, or elder admit such a struggle in front of the congregation. In fact, few of the members who sit in the pews would admit publicly to a diagnosis of mental illness.
The struggle is real. It exists. And as long as we pretend it doesn’t, we’ll have priests who are pedophiles, preachers who abuse their wives and children under the guise of discipline, church leaders who struggle in silence to rid themselves of demons, and, tragically, someone we know who walks into a church or office building and opens fire on both colleagues and strangers.
All of these people were once children for whom we would have had compassion. But somehow, when they cross the threshold into adulthood, we simply expect them to “man up” and move past the trauma that has made them who they are.
Jesus never once passed by such people who needed healing, whether it was physical or mental. And neither should we.