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.