Christian Culture’s (Sad) Response to Mental Illness

It’s in the Title: Mental Illness is an Illness

Salads and sandwiches and a shared mental illness, all of it on the tiny table between us.

“There is help for OCD,” I told her.  “The most effective treatment is cognitive-behavioral therapy.  Between that and my medication, I got my life back.  I know you can too.”  (The evangelical zeal I have for this particular therapy reminds me of the way I love Jesus: both took me from darkness into light, both make me want to throw parades in their honor.)

“Oh, I don’t know,” said my friend, poking at her salad with a fork, sounding hesitant.  “I think before I take any extreme methods, I want to just pray about it more.  I know that God can bring me through this.”

I wanted to say, But you have been praying about this for years!  I also believe God can bring you through this—and I am telling you how.

There is a pervasive and unhealthy attitude in the Christian culture toward mental illness.  Many believe that one should be able to “pray away” a disorder.  Some think that mental illness is, quite simply, spiritual warfare; some think it’s the result of unresolved sin issues.  One of my friends has said before that a real Christian can’t be clinically depressed.  I saw a Facebook status once that read, “Depression is a choice.”

These sentiments light a fire in me, especially for the way that they marginalize a group of people that are often already more susceptible to guilt.  I know that in my OCD hey-day, I felt continual guilt and severe shame; for someone to intimate to me that these feelings were the appropriate ones would only mean that my Christian brothers and sisters were siding with my disorder—and against me.

Mental illnesses are just that: illnesses. 

friendsGod and Satan can work through them just the same way as they could through, say, cancer or diabetes.  All issues are spiritual issues, simply because we are spiritual beings, but it is not helpful to label a chemical issue with a giant term like spiritual warfare.  To say that a Christian cannot be depressed is like saying a real Christian can’t get the flu.  To say that depression is a choice is like saying strep throat is a choice.

If you break a bone, do you get it set in a cast?  If you learn you’re diabetic, do you take insulin?  If cancer steps into your body, do you pursue chemotherapy?

The answer is usually yes.  Yes—and pray.  (Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for prayer!  And for medical innovation!)

That is why I am unashamed of my OCD, my depression.  Instead, I am proud of my God for seeing me through a therapy as difficult as CBT and for being my strength through five years of side effects in the search for the right medication.

Unfortunately, my friend left the sandwich shop that evening feeling obligated to “pray away” a spiritual flaw instead of feeling empowered to fight illness, in spite of my best efforts.  My voice is being drowned out by the multitude of louder voices of the Christian culture, a culture that should be supporting this demographic, not alienating it.

35 thoughts on “Christian Culture’s (Sad) Response to Mental Illness

  1. Right on target! And imagine the battle I have with Christian support for my son who’s now possibly OCD and Schizophrenic at the same time! With a mental disorder there’s no outward, obvious problem except for possibly a distressed facial appearance. On the other hand, when someone is bleeding, we don’t say to the person let’s just pray it stops. My goodness, no. We apply pressure and get a bandage (or more). Yet, we also pray that the pain stops and that it heals quickly. Thanks for sharing this post. Fortunately I have a pastor that is quite enlightened in the area of mental illness and understands the depth of suffering it can cause. Thanks for writing this post. I’m glad you have this blog. It’s right on! David/:0)

  2. Amen! I thank God all the time that my church is filled with believers who do not make me feel guilty for my illness, as if it were my fault. But I suspect my situation may be a bit unusual? I hope not. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard from believers, “Can you pray for my surgery next week?” or “Can you pray for my physical therapy appointment?” Obviously, in those circumstances, the believer is counting on God through prayer, and through earthly tools for healing (doctors, surgery, medication, physical therapy, etc.) that were provided by God. Why can’t we do the same with mental illness? Why, oh WHY is it so different?! Ugh! This is a hot button issue for me.

    • What a perfect example, Sunny! Yes, people pray all the time for medical interventions that don’t relate to the brain. Why, then, when it comes to a brain disorder, do people want to rule out the medical intervention? It makes no sense to me.

      I imagine that people are ignorant and fearful of things outside of their own experience. I have a dear, dear friend who just cannot FATHOM what depression is like. She has just never dealt with it and so it is very difficult for her to identify.

  3. Amen to this. I heard sooooo many times that “happiness is a choice” and “how can you possibly feel like this when you see all God’s creations? It’s literally impossible not to be happy!” And so I took the burden of depression on myself. It was my fault, and for some reason all the prayers in the world couldn’t fix me. I was just broken. I went on like this for YEARS. I finally got the help I needed in pill form during college, and I became a completely different person. The trick was not being angry with God–and realizing this was an error in the attitudes of men.

  4. I was once told I needed to pray more, that one person got over her depression just by praying it away. I even heard one priest saying that “neuroses come to people who don’t believe in God.” I felt hurt and angry when I heard that. I believe that what he said is not true at all. I also heard from someone that a Christian person “should not be sad” and I thought “What? One should not have feelings, then? They’re part of life!”. I’m trying to go to Church once again after having obsessions about religion (which I still have sometimes) and I hear such things? They’re not helpful at all, in my opinion.

    • Ignorance leading to spiritual abuse. “Neuroses come to people who don’t believe in God”???? Ouch.

      I applaud you for continuing to seek God in spite of believers who have hurt you. Christians fail often; Christ never does.

  5. Oh MAN, can I identify! I had an unfortunate experience with a spiritual director who believed that I just “needed to be discipled.”
    Thankfully my family and close friends understand the biological root of mental illness; I have also found comfort in the writings of early Christian fathers and mothers who had a wise and gentle understanding of the mind’s demons.

    • I think it’s spiritual abuse.

      Not that they are TRYING to be abusive– I like to imagine they are just ignorant– but it seems to amount to abuse nonetheless.

      I watched a TEDTalk that mentioned a potential shift in terminology: from “mental illness” to “brain disorder.” I think it might help people realize it’s just a medical issue. Still, I don’t know. No one bats an eye when someone gets chemo. Why is a sickness of the brain so different?

  6. “I saw a Facebook status once that read, ‘Depression is a choice.'” — OUCH!

    I feel your pain. And this kind of thing also happens a lot for folks with chronic illnesses. My parents always try to dismiss away my narcolepsy like it’s all in my head. I can’t tell you how many times they’ve made comments like “I can’t wait until the day you stop taking all that medication.” As if I can just up and quit the meds and I’ll be back to normal. It’s really frustrating and disheartening. 😦

    • My dad once said something similar to me while I was on my way to the psychiatrist’s office: “Why don’t you just get off all your medication and see if that fixes things?”

      To which I replied: “Dad. I haven’t been TAKING any medication for a year. And I’m a mess. That’s why I’m headed to the doctor.”

      He had a very hard time understanding how I could be depressed when I was a Christian. And had paid off my car loan. LOL. Oh Dad. Not that easy. 🙂

  7. Oh man, Jackie, can I relate! Thanks for being so upfront. I wish I could boldly proclaim that I am not ashamed. For even though I have been forthcoming about my struggle with depression, I still feel the shame. If I were a “better” or “stronger” Christian I would be fine, right?

    • It’s just so backward. You wouldn’t say that about yourself if you had another sickness. “I’m such a bad Christian because I got diabetes.” No way! I wish people could let medical issues be medical issues.

      (I’m quite passionate about this, ha!)

      • I share this as I am sure many of your followers can relate. The following is an entry from my journal that I shared with the KCC church family just before I took a 1 month leave of absence to take part in a “partial hospitalization” program:

        Most often when somebody has an accident, is diagnosed with cancer, or faces some other serious physical illness they gather all the support & prayers that they can. They list it on the prayer chains of all their church-going friends, they tell all their family members and friends, they mention it on Facebook, and sometimes even set up a caring bridge site. Their friends, their families – even complete strangers- attend benefits, send cards, say prayers, bring meals, post encouraging words and scriptures- anything they can do to show their love, friendship & support.

        But depression is a different kind of beast. This illness can be completely exhausting and last for years. Medications and treatments may or may not be effective. Although the diagnosis is not usually considered to be deadly, it can be.

        Sadly, we, the depressed, usually fight this battle alone. We plaster on the fake smile and act as if things couldn’t be better. We avoid eye contact, hoping nobody will see the deep sadness we are desperate to hide. We stay home & make excuses rather than risk being found out; being misunderstood; being judged; being seen as weak or maybe even crazy. We even try to hide it from our very own families and closest friends. It is our deep, dark secret… our private suffering. I am so tired of struggling alone in this shameful silence. It is like a cancer eating away at my very soul. Oh please, evil depression, release me from this dark and lonely place.

  8. Rejection by others Christians for me (because of OCD/Depression) meant: losing life long bestfriend and 5 year boyfriend to another (probably stronger Christian girl) He was glad we didn’t get married before he found out “something was wrong with me”. No wonder one big obession of mine has be that there is something wrong with me. The more rejection I feel from these people, the more I am able to see what what was missing in these relationships. Funny how God is working to change the relationships and people in my life. Sorry this is so long. Thank you for this Jackie and everyone who has commented. This blog and others on OCD/Depression help me to see and feel the acceptance CHRIST always offers.

  9. I too suffer from depression and have been on and off antidepressant meds for years. It is when I go off of them things get bad for me. I don’t pray, I don’t seek help, I don’t have a good relationship with the Lord. I believe the Lord gives us the medical and psychiatric world to us so we can get relief. I have met many counselors and doctors who are strong believers in a higher Power( God to me).

    I would encourage anyone who is suffering from mental illness to get help.

    • Margie, is there a reason you keep trying to go off of the antidepressants? Sounds like they work well for you. I’ve accepted that I might be on my SSRIs for the rest of my life, and I’m okay with that.

  10. Great post! I struggle with OCD…. and went through something similar….. people would literally hand me stupid pamphlets that they got at church about “trusting God” and “giving him my worries and stress”. It was offensive because I had/have a healthy relationship with God and it pissed off that people thought that obviously wasn’t the case since I had so many “issues.” Do I think it is important to lean on God when struggling with anxiety and OCD episodes? YES! But do I think saying a prayer will cure me, no way! It is a daily battle, but it is what it is. Like you, I went through cognitive behavioral therapy and it worked wonders. Not a permanent cure, but I’m no longer sitting on the sidelines of life!

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  12. Wow thanks for an amazing post! God bless you for your courage and taking a stand for us all! I suffer from ocd and anxiety and your right it is a battle. Keep up the good work and the faith in Jesus name Amen! J.M.J.

  13. Well, written, I will share this one. I have a good friend who suffers from bi-polar and anxiety disorder, I have seen first-hand what happens when meds are changed or wrong dosage or whatever. She is a wonderful friend who loves Jesus and loves her family, and I don’t see her any differently because of her illnesses. I love her dearly!! And I try to support her every way I can.

  14. I think some of the Christian resistance to mental health is because of Freud’s version of therapy. A lot of religious leaders disliked the idea of blaming primeval urges for all mental disorders. Even today, there are still the stereotypes of the couch and ‘tell me about your mother’. It took a long time in the pyschology field for more reasonable therapies to emerge and there will probably be better therapies in the future to better target specific mental illnesses. There are probably Christians not in the psych/mental health field who still think therapy is just laying on a couch and talking mother issues. It might be worth it to see what other Christians think mental health therapy is about and see what they expect therapy is like. I know it’s different than what I expected before I took mental health classes.

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  16. My husband will probably be on and off SSRIs for the rest of his life. His depression and OCD are cyclical, so he’ll take the meds for 6 months or so, then not need them for a year or two, then go back on them. He prefers not to be on them because he is a professional musician and SSRIs inhibit his creativity (it’s not his imagination–it has been noted by colleagues and teachers).

    His mother told him that she was sure he’d start feeling better if he just prayed and trusted in God more. Um, that might help a little, but I’m sure God doesn’t want him to eschew medication and therapy.

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