Excerpted From ‘Depression, Anxiety, and Other Things We Don’t Want to Talk About’ (Thomas Nelson)
Depression, Anxiety, and Other Things We Don’t Want to Talk About
By Ryan Casey Waller
We all have a lot of work to do. Most medical professionals agree that we are less than a generation away from turning the corner on cancer. But when it comes to mental health, the car is still parked in the garage. It’s a well-accepted embarrassment that 20 years have passed since psychiatry’s last major breakthrough treatment for depression. More than 50 years have come and gone since schizophrenia received a meaningful treatment update. Thomas Insel, the former director of the National Institute of Mental Health, summed it up perfectly when he said:
“Whatever we’ve been doing for five decades, it ain’t working. … When I look at the numbers—the number of suicides, the number of disabilities, the mortality data—it’s abysmal, and it’s not getting any better. Maybe we just need to rethink this whole approach.”
I wish I could say the church has picked up the slack for medicine, but it hasn’t. While it’s not the church’s job to cure mental illness, the church should be a major player in any conversation about caring for those who suffer in their minds. But we haven’t been. In fact, in many cases, Christians have been some of the worst offenders when it comes to attaching stigma to mental illness, often attributing it to a spiritual failing, unconfessed sin, flimsy faith or plain old lack of religious devotion. All of which must absolutely break the heart of Jesus who made it explicitly clear he came not for those who were doing great in life but for those who were sick (Mark 2:17). Jesus embodied the reality that God is always “close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit” (Ps. 34:18).
And yet when mental illness strikes, it’s often the companionship of other Christians we lose first. Given Jesus’ propensity to eat and drink with lepers, menstruating women, the paralyzed, the blind—folks the religious people avoided—one might assume the church would wholeheartedly champion the needs of the mentally ill. Instead, only those whose illnesses manifest in traditionally “bodily” forms have been given priority of care.
Break your leg in a snow skiing accident? A church staffer will call you. You might even get a card in the mail. Get diagnosed with breast cancer? The prayer warriors will rally around you and your family. A meal train will get rolling toward your house before you even have a chance to tidy up. Need open heart surgery? Your small group is coming to the hospital. And maybe your pastor too.
But what happens when your wife can’t get out of bed to dress your children for school and is eventually diagnosed with major depressive disorder? What about when your twenty-two-year-old son goes missing after a night of smoking weed and is discovered by the police the next day rambling incoherently in a grocery store parking lot and a few weeks later gets diagnosed with schizophrenia?
What does the church do when you’re forced to resign your duties as a deacon because you need twenty- eight days to dry out in rehab?
I can tell you what usually happens in these situations. I can tell you what I have seen. The church gets quiet. Like college-library-on-a-Saturday-night quiet. And this silence is not only deafening; it is also spiritually crushing. Because when the church falls down on the job, it feels like God has fallen down on the job— at the worst possible time. Which is something God is really not supposed to do.
Matthew Stanford is a neuroscientist who has studied the relationship between the church and mental illness for decades. Stanford’s research has found that local churches in the United States dismiss mental illness at alarmingly high levels. In one study, Stanford polled eighty- five Christians who had been diagnosed with having a mental disorder. More than 40 percent of them reported that someone in their church had suggested they didn’t actually have a mental illness.
Can you think of any other form of illness where Christians tell other Christians their doctors don’t know what they’re talking about? Imagine how foolish a pastor would sound calling you at the hospital to explain your child doesn’t actually have cancer. It’s ridiculous and would never happen. But when it comes to mental illness, it does happen.
Excerpted from Depression, Anxiety, and Other Things We Don’t Want to Talk About by Ryan Casey Waller. Copyright © 2021 by Ryan Casey Waller. Used by permission of Thomas Nelson. ThomasNelson.com