“An understanding of these statements can help the body of Christ be sensitive to the needs of its members.”
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), 1 in 5 adults in America experiences mental illness in any given year, and 1 in 25 adults experiences a serious mental illness that impedes day-to-day activities. With statistics like these, the call for our attention is great.
As a Christian who is also a licensed clinical marriage and family therapist, I recognize the connection between faith, mental health and how we relate to one another. Whether the struggle is our own or that of a family member or friend, the effects mental illness can be devastating and isolating.
It seems that if someone receives a physical or medical diagnosis, there is great concern and empathy without question—however, the same is not true for a mental-health diagnosis. Somehow there are assumptions that, “It’s all in their head,” or, “They’re just being dramatic,” or, “That’s an excuse for …”
Each of these statements is hurtful, and the ones saying them fail to understand that the same way a person recently diagnosed with or battling cancer, diabetes, etc. needs and appreciates kind words and gestures, the individual recently diagnosed or dealing with a chronic mental illness needs and desires the same. As the church, we should make ourselves available to and for the purpose of loving people where they are while allowing God to draw them closer.
An understanding of these three statements can help the body of Christ be sensitive to the mental and emotional needs of its members.
Lie No. 1: A mental-health diagnosis means the individual has no faith or doesn’t trust God.
This is not true. One of the greatest challenges for people of faith is suffering. Being diagnosed with a mental illness can certainly be a struggle, even with a good support system, therapy and, if needed, medication. God’s Word is full of examples of faith-filled, God-loving, God-serving people who suffered. It seems like a paradox, but it is true: People who love, serve and have faith in God can wrestle with mental-health issues; the two are not mutually exclusive.
In working with clients who profess faith in Christ, one the greatest reported challenges is reconciling that they love and are loved by God yet they are afflicted with a mental illness. This does something to their faith, and hearing from others, particularly other believers, that their suffering is an indication of their lack of faith, is an added burden that may cause some to withdraw from the church community and even from their faith in God.
Lie No. 2: A mental-health diagnosis can be solved simply through prayer and/or having a positive mindset.
This is also not true. Instead, there has to be a balanced approach that addresses the spiritual needs as well as the physical needs of the person and family affected. People are not one-dimensional, but somehow we get the impression that mental health is a one-sided coin, and if one would “just pray” and have a positive mindset, things would change. If your neighbor had a broken arm, you would not simply tell him or her to pray that God would heal them to think positively about their healing. You might start there as you reach for the phone to call the paramedics or keys to drive them to the hospital.
In the same way, when someone we care about is dealing with a mental-health crisis, it is important that we respond with the same degree of compassion and action, as appropriate. The assumption that prayer alone is the remedy is flawed. As the body of Christ we have to consider that the God who created all things provided a great wealth of resources for us to address each of life’s ailments and ills. Since we know that God uses all things for is glory, in the treatment of mental illness, all things can include the practices of faith (Bible reading/devotionals, prayer, attending church/small group, etc.), as well as seeing a licensed therapist or counselor, and taking medication, as prescribed. Each of these God-given resources has the collective potential to effect change in the lives of believers who struggle with and overcome mental-health challenges.
Lie No. 3: A mental-health diagnosis defines a person’s identity.
This is not true. A mental-health diagnosis is simply a label to describe a set of symptoms. People-first language asserts the importance of honoring the person before the diagnostic label or disability. We tend to address people by their name, but then there are the times that we use descriptive words or characteristics to distinguish who we are talking about. You wouldn’t generally say, “the diabetic lady” or “the prostate-cancer guy,” but some have the impression that it is OK to say “she’s borderline” or “he’s bipolar.”
One of the most stigmatizing things about mental health is the terms people tend to use without really having a sense of their meaning. A first step would be to consider that our word choices and their meanings have great power. Let’s be careful with ours, especially because the people we are referring to are also children of God deserving dignity and respect, regardless of any diagnostic label.
I hope this begins a dialogue that frames how we interact within the body of Christ so that we can embrace those who are often at an arm’s length away and want to be closer. If you or someone you know and love is struggling with a mental-health diagnosis, you are not alone. Please contact your primary care physician or other health care provider to inquire about available referrals and support services.
Erica St. Bernard is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in Bowie, Maryland, providing mental health and relationship counseling for individuals, couples and families.