Before I begin, let me offer full disclosure: I have suffered from depression and anxiety on and off for more than five years. Granted, my illness falls fairly low on the spectrum, but the fact that I’ve left a couple jobs because of the overwhelming experiences of anxiety shows you that this has caused a serious and ongoing struggle in my life.
For me, there has been no life experience more isolating and terrifying than the severe, debilitating moments of a panic attack.
I have been fortunate enough in my journey to be comforted and supported by loved ones—my wife, family, friends, counselors—in the midst of despair, many of whom were also members of the faith community to which I belonged.
But I am at the same time painfully aware that many who have walked the same journey through depression and other mental and emotional ailments have not experienced the same level of grace within their congregation.
While most haven’t been outright rejected, a common experience for many of us with mental illnesses is to feel marginalized, judged—or, worst of all, avoided—as if our ailments fall low on the priority list of concerns, they are a result of a lack of faith or selfish ignorance of the obvious blessings in our lives, or they create too much uncertainty, discomfort or risk to address.
The latter results when people are afraid of that which they cannot control. In other words, we are all painfully aware that a pat on the back and “I’ll pray for you” typically don’t heal a person with mental illnesses, but we lack the psychiatric knowledge and therapeutic experience to help people in these circumstances.
Let it be known: depression and mental illness are real things.
They are not coping mechanisms or reality escapes, nor are they the result of not focusing on the bright side and counting our blessings. They don’t plague only people of little faith or those who have made “bad” choices. Sometimes they are circumstantial; frequently, however, they are rather indiscriminatory and plague people across age, gender, ethnic and economic lines.
Churches—especially, sorry to say, Protestant Evangelical churches—fail people with mental illnesses when they perpetuate what we’ll call here the “happy gospel”.
This happy gospel distorts what it means to follow Jesus and distances those of us with mental illness from the healing presence of God and the comfort of community.
It causes churches to read the Jesus’ Beatitudes and omit his litany of woes. It encourages us to focus on triumphs—David over Goliath, the Israelites over Canaan, Jesus over death—and neglect to dwell in the deep agony of defeat, betrayal, loss, and despair. It inspires us to write fluffy contemporary praise songs that overlook the suffering and pain around us. It communicates to many of us that if we can’t bring a beaming smile to church, we are somehow missing the message of Jesus and left out of the body of Christ.
During the recent Envision Access webinar, ADNet program associate Christine Guth urged participants to throw people with mental illnesses a lifeline. The line she suggested was to worship with the Psalms of lament, which stands in opposition to the happy gospel mentality I introduced above.
But there are countless others, including fostering authentic community where experiences can be shared, integrating external mental health resources with the life and ministry of the church, and providing space for open and honest dialogue.
Church needs to be a place where people who are mentally ill can openly express their inner struggles and be met with grace, acceptance, embrace, healing. Let us strive to make it so.