It seems that my corner of the interwebs is all lit up with mental health awareness messages this week. It’s possibly because of ‘RUOK? Day’ that just passed in Australia, possibly because its Mental Health Awareness Month in the United States, and possibly because I follow a lot of people on Twitter who are grieving the death of Jarrid Wilson. He was a pastor and mental health advocate who tragically lost his battle with depression, even more tragically it was on the day he officiated the funeral of another Christian who lost her battle with depression. In amongst the outpouring of grief, the voice of ignorance seems to have raised itself in the form of people who assert that Christians can’t have mental illnesses, or that suffering from a mental illness disqualifies them from the ministry. This is a dangerous belief; one that is unbiblical and unhelpful at best, and flat out dangerous at worst. In a time when mental illness is thought to affect up to 25% of us, its not good enough to turn a deaf ear to such rubbish. So let’s talk about it.
First cab off the rank: Can Christians Suffer from Mental Illness? Short answer? Yes, they can. But of course, there is more to it than that. For some, this question stems from the NAR/Bethel-Esque belief that total healing from all conditions is guaranteed at the point of salvation. Thus, if someone is born again in Christ, they won’t suffer from mental illness, or indeed any other illness (!!! More on that later). For others, it comes from an antiquated and even subconscious belief that mental illness is demonic or spiritual in origin. Now, thankfully most Christian’s will at least acknowledge that some depression can have neurological or physiological origins. But others hold to the idea that depression is a spiritual, demonic or sin-related malady.
The latter is not helpful. And it’s not true.
Let me switch out my “Christian blogger” hat for my “Research blogger” hat for a second. Here’s what research tells us about depression: it is neurological. Every time. It is physiological. Every time. Why? Because thoughts, feelings, ruminations and such all take place in the brain which is a physical and neurological thing, and having stressors (whether they are physical, chemical or emotional) often factor into the etiology of depressive disorders. The research is a little fuzzy on why serotonin reuptake inhibitors help in a lot of cases, but it seems to have something to do with the neurotransmitters that help signals jump from one neuron to another (i.e. that lovely serotonin in your brain and gut that bathes your neurocircuitry).
There is also emerging research that indicates depression is an inflammation issue, and there are well-established links between mental health and gut health (with the gut being home to the enteric nervous system which houses billions of neurons and communicates to the brain via the vagus nerve and the gut-brain axis. I.e. Many depression sufferers have gut problems, too.
Depression is physical. Read that again. Depression is a physical issue. It’s time we stopped treating mental health as some ethereal, intangible thing. Its time we stopped saying “Oh its all in your head.” Guess what: your head is a tangible thing. Your brain is a tangible thing. If its all in your head, it exists. The thoughts of the mind (with the mind being the brain in action) can be seen on brain scans in the form of neuronal pathways lighting up on the screen. The activity of the limbic system (which governs our emotions) is something that can be measured. We can also measure sympathetic function (the sympathetic nervous system is the part of the nervous system that fires up under stress, and kicks our survival mechanisms into play). Thus, mental illness is tangible in many ways. (Research blogger hat now removed, FYI)
So when you ask yourself if a Christian can have depression, you are really asking whether a Christian can experience physical illness, inflammation, chronic or acute stress, or gut problems. If you can have diarrhea after you eat something you shouldn’t, your Christian brother or sister can have depression. One is no more demonic than the other. Yes, one is more short term than the other (hopefully!) but the point still stands.
Have you ever taken a panadol/Tylenol or aspirin for a headache? Have you ever put an icepack on a sprained ankle or knee? Have you ever gone to the doctor for an upset tummy or other condition? It might have been easy to say that it’s okay for you to suffer from those ailments because its just life, yet turn to depression and related illnesses and say “but that’s not.”
That, right there, is hypocritical. I’m coming out of the gate firing on this one because it matters. If we apply shame is to physical, neurological, chemical conditions that manifest as depression or other mental illnesses we may inadvertently create a situation in which someone may feel shame in getting help. This is the danger of bad theology. It can, quite literally, put a life at risk. People! Let’s not do this! Let’s make churches a safe place for someone to say “I think I’m depressed” and receive support in getting help – not shame or demotions.
It is my belief that depression should not be treated as a spiritual issue. It should be treated as a very real, very serious condition that requires a holistic approach for treatment. That approach should include professional (qualified) help such as counselling and medication. It should include diet and exercise (which is often prescribed as part of the action plan). The place where church should come into a Christian’s action plan is that it should provide community, pastoral support, an opportunity to connect in a positive environment, receive peace and encouragement through scripture (etc), and receive prayer for encouragement or healing if if IF the depression sufferer asks for it. *The latter should never be administered as the sole approach to recovery.* I say this as a person who has been ashamed to admit that attempts at faith healing had failed. In my case it was shoulder and elbow damage after an accident. It was obvious my conditions hadn’t been healed and I felt shame. The hidden shame when a mental illness isn’t healed by faith could be dangerous.
I do believe in prayer. I do believe that when we turn to God, He can perform miracles. I don’t believe that should be the only approach with mental illness. To limit “treatment” to faith healing could be deadly because it could cause a person to feel shame or failure if it doesn’t work. Worse still, it could cause them to feel pressure to act like all is well, or discontinue other treatment. I sweat at the thought.
A particularly concerning doctrine regarding and all healing is an increasingly prevalent belief in some NAR churches that healing from all maladies is guaranteed at the point of salvation. I mentioned it at the top of this piece and I’ll mention it again here: it’s not true and it’s not helpful. We can’t measure the quality of our salvation on whether or not our cancerous tumours disappeared when we said the prayer. Nor can we measure it on whether or not our depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, bipolar, (etc. etc. etc.) disappeared when we said the prayer. Some people may get healed when they invite Jesus into their hearts. GOOD for them. Some people may take years to heal. Good for them. Others may be healed in eternity. Good for them. The fact is every walk with God is different and none should be judged against another.
Paul had a “thorn in his side.” Jacob had a limp. No one would look at them and say “disqualified.” God certainly wouldn’t. We shouldn’t do this to people who suffer mental illness.
Now to the question of whether or not someone should be in the ministry if they suffer from depression or another mental illness. I’d like to turn your attention to King David. As the author of many of the Psalms, it has often been questioned whether his natural artistry and melancholy crossed the line into depression or bipolar disorder. It’s possible! Some of those Psalms are dark! But he was called ‘a man after God’s own heart,’ depression or not. Then there is Elijah the prophet: perhaps the clearest example of burnout or depression in ministry, when the burdens of the call proved too much to bear and he felt the need to hide in a cave for three years and not look after himself (thank God for sending the birds as a catering service). Jeremiah was called the weeping prophet. King Saul had moments of extreme darkness (not that he was a pillar of godliness, I know). All these illustrate the point that the personal struggles or mental illnesses of some of the greatest Bible heroes did not disqualify them from serving God.
Nor should it disqualify our modern ministers from serving God. What it should mean is better support around them, and medical help if required. It should mean that their occupational oversight makes sure they take their holidays every year to recharge the batteries and that stress or complexity is well-managed within the context of their role. It shouldn’t mean they feel shame over their condition or hide it from those around them while wondering why God hasn’t cured them yet.
In a secular workplace, you might feel the need to take extended leave if you were suffering to the point where it was affecting your job. A pastor may need that from time to time if his or her condition is serious or worrying, or that sharing other peoples burdens (as they so often do) is proving too much. That should be okay. I see it as the duty of care the denomination or oversight owes to their pastor. (If a church is independent, this would be difficult. Yet another reason I’m cautious of independent churches – but that’s another topic for another day).
So if you are a minister or a Christian feeling shame about mental illness – please don’t. We didn’t see God shaming Elijah, David, Noah, or many others for their walks with the black dog. You are loved as you are, valued as you are, and precious to God as you are – but don’t mess around with this illness. Please. You deserve care and the best chance at recovery.
“Now Kit, you’ve taken a very unspiritual look at this problem,” I hear you say. “Where does spiritual stuff fit in?” I know many people still believe there is potential spiritual involvement in illnesses including mental illnesses. I have heard of people doing prayer counselling to remove generational curses and such. I’m going to do another piece on this because it’s a loaded topic so come back next week for that one. But here’s the scoop: there are three forms of deliverance. The first happens at the point of salvation. The second happens more gradually, as we consume and internalise the word of God. The third is so rare and problematic I’d almost call it needless in a modern setting where the consent issue can push it over into spiritual abuse.
While it is obvious that Jesus cast out spirits in some extreme cases in the New Testament (the one with Legion and the herd of pigs in Mark 5/Luke 8 for example), He had the benefit of one thing: He was God and had perfect insight into the situation. He was yet to give His life for the redemption of humanity. He was yet to send the Holy Spirit as our helper, counsellor and guide. These are benefits that we now have. To invoke power-deliverance ministries and ignore the health-related fields dedicated to a more gentle and therapeutic approach to mental illness is, in my opinion, needless and dangerous. As Christians, as the living representation of Christ on earth, it is our duty to tread very carefully with the most vulnerable of people. But more on that next week.
I hope you’re intrigued. See you again soon