Fighting the religious stigma of mental illness

I would like to address the idea that psychology has no place in the realm of religion or faith.

That is baloney. Pure baloney.

I will speak to those who share my faith of Christianity: We need to cut through the stigma and shame pervading our churches about mental illness because there are hurting people with ailments they didn’t ask for any more than people ask to develop cancer. They don’t choose depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, eating disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, or whatever it may be. And they don’t struggle with these illnesses because of some lack of spiritual discipline on their part. How do I know this? Because I didn’t choose to take on any of the mental afflictions that have plagued me for the past few months.

The year 2016 was an awful year for me, as it was for many. I found myself in a set of circumstances I didn’t think I could handle, but continuously told myself I’d be okay if I just tried hard enough. Despite my best efforts and most desperate prayers, I was cracking under the weight of it all and battling intense emotional turmoil on a daily basis. Even after graduating college and returning home to live with my family, the emotional upheaval continued. Ever so slowly I watched as pain, despair, and doubt chipped away at my understanding of who God was, although I tried my best to fight it. After a few more stressful, confusing events, I felt the floor of my faith finally give out.

“God, what are You doing?” I cried. “What is wrong with me? Who am I? Why am I here? What is the point of any of this?”

No one asks to have their world fall apart. No one asks to be put through experiences that throw everything they thought they knew into question. No one asks to be filled with bleak and endless emptiness. Especially not when I’m supposed to rejoice in hardships, be joyful always, and die to myself daily.

I think the lie that psychology and faith cannot mix pervades a lot of modern Christian thought. We think science is the enemy, taking medication is sinful, and mental health issues are really just symptoms of spiritual weakness. Friends, this kind of thinking is toxic. For me, psychology has helped fill in the missing gaps to explain what’s been happening in my head and heart. I found comfort in researching situational depression. I was relieved to learn about cognitive dissonance. I discovered parallels between the five stages of grief and my ongoing emotional fluctuations. Where religion told me I was a failure who should be ashamed, psychology told me I was a normal, hurting human being trying to make sense of a messy world. And ironically, it’s been in psychology, not in religion, that I’ve encountered the true compassion and grace of Jesus.

Early in the spring semester of my final year of college, there was a pastor who came to speak at a chapel service at my university. Her message, I will never forget, was on the topic of mental illness. I’m sure there were students who yawned and completely tuned out once the pastor revealed her topic, but my attention was fully captured. What that pastor didn’t know was I had just come from meeting with my university’s counselor for the first time. After weeks of emotional breakdowns, I finally admitted to myself that there was something more going on than spiritual struggles, and I needed help. As my heart still raced from the mixed emotions about beginning counseling, the pastor spoke words of truth and comfort to my burdened soul: “Mental illness is not a spiritual problem.”

In writing this post, I pinpointed three words I believe can serve as practical guides in moving toward normalizing the subject of mental illness in our faith circles, no matter what your particular religious affiliation is.

Accept. Accepting someone may be struggling with a mental illness can be hard, especially if it’s a close friend or relative who hasn’t outwardly shown many indications that they are dealing with a mental illness. Regardless of who it may be, it’s crucial to lay aside any denial on your part and accept the person’s word for what’s going on.

Affirm. Taking acceptance a step further, affirm the pain and the emotions being described to you. Empathy is such a powerful tool to have, and this could not be truer when listening to a hurting friend. A great resource I found to learn more about practicing empathy is this clip by Brené Brown.

Advocate. Having accepted and affirmed someone’s battle with mental illness, support that person in their journey toward getting help. Be a source of encouragement when it comes to their treatment, whether they’re seeing a therapist or taking medication. Educate yourself on mental health by doing a simple Google search or reading the stories of others (I highly recommend checking out The Mighty). And determine to be a voice in your own faith community that speaks up against the stigma of mental illness. You never know how choosing to replace stigma with grace could open eyes and comfort aching hearts.

I firmly believe psychology and faith do not, and should not, exist in separate realms. The greatest lesson I’m learning from my own battles with mental health is what it means to be human—a beautifully complex being composed of physical, spiritual, emotional, relational, and psychological dimensions. The God I still believe in and serve loved His creation so much that He took on human flesh with all its wonders and wounds so that He might understand, empathize with, and redeem humanity.

May we experience greater tastes of His grace as we let Him sit with us in our darkest places, at the intersection of faith, soul, and mind.

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