I am so thankful that as a society we are talking more and more about the impact of mental health on individuals and their families. In my experience though mental health is still very much a taboo issue amongst some Christians. There seems to be a hesitation to acknowledge that mental illness is very much an illness as any other type of physical illness. Instead, those of us with mental health challengers are told that they are possessed by demons, or they are choosing to be naughty and sinful, or they lack faith and trust in God, and on it goes.
The words that people say to you during your battle with mental illness can profoundly impact on your relationship with God. Often the words that people have said to me have left me feeling that I was a terrible Christian who God could not possibly love, because I have an illness that makes me a “bad example of being a Christian”.
Mental illness needs to be seen as an illness amongst Christians. We need to be careful with what words we use or how we define mental illness within the church. We need to be open to the fact that God can and does use people with mental illness. You only have to look at the works of Charles Spurgeon to see that God used Spurgeon’s battle with depression to bring glory to His name. Spurgeon wrote a number of works that many Christians going through mental illness use to find hope in the darkest periods of their life.
I think that mental illness is something you can only relate to if you have been in the midst of it. Therefore, I think that God uses an individual’s battle with mental illness to not only draw them closer to Himself, but to encourage fellow brothers and sisters in the faith to not give up, and remind them their hope is only found in Christ. As 2 Corinthians 1:3 reminds us that “God is the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God”. If the church chooses to treat mental illness as a taboo issue, then many brothers and sisters will remain alone and isolated in the darkest times of their life.
I think Christians need to see that the person with a mental illness is a dearly loved child of God. They may struggle with thoughts of suicide, self-harm or emotions that are out of control. This doesn’t mean that God loves them any less and nor does it mean that the church should love people with mental illness any less either, but I think are called love them even more.
How can a church better support someone with mental illness?
1. Humbly choose to ask the individual how this illness impacts their life. Allow them to freely and openly discuss mental health, to breakdown the stigma of mental illness, which is sadly prevalent in some churches.
2. Do not judge the person for having a mental illness, unfairly target them or feel the need to discipline a person because of their mental illness.
3. Having a mental illness is just as draining as having a physical illness. Ask the person with a mental illness if they need any practical support, just like you would with a person with a physical illness.
4. Seek to do mental health training, particularly for those in leadership positions. Mental illness is more common than people realise and untrained persons offering advice can do a lot of damage.
5. Most people with severe mental illness are likely to have their own safety plan that is best for them. Those within the church should only follow the advice of the person’s medical team. Without following the person’s safety plan you are more likely to cause greater harm.
6. Realise that the person is sick and they will be irrational at times, hurt you, and cause distress. Please know this was not their intention but they are sick, and love them like Jesus would. How would Jesus love them? All throughout the gospel we see Jesus showing people compassion, understanding, and serving them in the midst of great difficulty.