April 10, 2018 Sara Spong

When Christianity Encounters Mental Illness

Mental Illness. What do we picture when we hear those words? Depression, addiction, bi-polar disorder, homelessness, or schizophrenia? The fact is, there are many in churches who silently suffer with a mental illness, fearing judgment or being ostracized. Now imagine a much different culture; a community where a medical diagnosis does not ostracize anyone, but signals the community to surround families with love, meals, and other support. It is time we as the living body of Christ, intentionally shatter the shame stained isolation of mental illness and become a place where those with a mental illness feel liberated to share their stories with openness and acceptance.

According to the National Institute of Mental Illness, one in six people (17% of the US population) suffers from a mental illness. In other words, 17 of every 100 people in our churches has a mental illness diagnosis. What would it look like for followers of Jesus to reimagine walking alongside those suffering with mental illness? What would our churches feel like if we reached out to those in need with the same love and compassion we do other medical diagnoses?

For some reason, an unspoken stigma surrounding mental illness pronounces itself more in church settings than other public settings.

As a counselor and minister’s wife, I have seen first-hand the pain families and individuals feel when they cannot “pray away” the depression, anxiety, or diagnosis. They wonder if they lack faith, have done something wrong, or committed a sin to bring illness upon themselves. Obviously this ideology is not a new development. Remember the disciples who asked the question of Jesus, “who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2). It was assumed that someone did something iniquitous if s/he was inflicted with illness.

Churches must come to understand that mental illness can result from physiological imbalances requiring medication to reestablish the right chemical balance or perhaps from a traumatic event that requires professional help to experience healing. In addition to struggling with mental illness, carriers must also deal with the shame they feel for receiving counseling or taking medication. Still, fear arises from thinking others will discover their “condition” and an already fragile experience of community diminishes even further. I cannot imagine suggesting a diabetic discontinue the use of insulin or someone with high blood pressure stopping medication entirely.

Physical illness often leads to a variety of lifestyle changes such as medications, surgery, physical therapy, family and social support, and health and nutrition counseling to achieve health and wellness. Those suffering from a mental illness benefit from changes to reach optimal health. This frequently means that medications and counseling/therapy, combined with family and social support, will greatly aid a person’s healing. Counselors employ certain tools to help empower individuals to thrive for health and wellness. Christian Counselors weave spiritual components into therapy to confirm the mind, body and soul work towards God’s best for the individual and/or family.

The health of the soul remains vital for the client’s true wholeness.

The isolation experienced by those suffering a mental illness opposes what Jesus modeled for the Church. It is time for the Church to wrap arms around ALL those suffering. Encouraging people to share their mental illness experiences will allow others to begin expressing their vulnerable stories. Matthew 5:16 says, “Keep open house; be generous with your lives. By opening-up to others, you’ll prompt people to open-up with God, this generous Father in heaven.” Freedom occurs in sharing the journey.

Not only does being courageously open about one’s indisposition help encourage others in similar situations to share what they are going through, but that same courage educates those that may not understand mental illness.

When we realize that mental illness may be a facet of a person’s story but not WHO they are, we can begin to embrace the beautiful uniqueness in him/her and perhaps catch a glimpse of how God is weaving all our brokenness and immense potential to fulfill His purposes on earth.

Those with mental illness have a valuable perspective on life derived from deep wells of pain associated with navigating life, managing their illness, and embodying tremendous joy as they are invited into the depths of Christ centered community. Their mental illness stands as only one aspect of their humanity and does not define them; instead, as treasured children of the most-high God, they resemble the other 83% of your congregation with gifts and desires to serve. My heart felt prayer is that we will be the church that welcomes them with open arms.

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About the Author

Sara Spong Sara Spong is a 1995 alum of SEU. She is a professional licensed counselor and PhD Candidate at Regent University. Sara and her husband Chuck have 4 children lead the non-profit Love Out Loud in Winston-Salem, NC.