The following is an excerpt from Cindy Brandt's book Outside In: 10 Christian Voices We Can't Ignore. Chapter 8 of Outside In is entitled 'Too Depressed', and deals with those in our churches and communities struggling with mental illness, focusing specifically on those fighting depression.
It's hard to go to school, work, or church when you're drowning.
Depression is an invisible disease. Unless a depressed person chooses to share her story, at the risk of not being believed, she appears perfectly normal, even seemingly happy. But those smiles are plastered on by social necessity, and the energy expended on wearing a fake persona becomes exhausting, leaving someone in the throes of a depressive episode unwilling to get out of the house. Including Sunday mornings. And when a depressed person manages to make her way through the doorway of a church, is she truly welcomed?
Silence from the Pulpit
This invisible disease is made even more imperceptible when it is not addressed from the pulpit, the microphone of the church.
According to a Lifeway Research survey on the subject of mental health and the Christian faith, the majority of pastors rarely address the topic of mental illness from the pulpit. Psychology, as an academic discipline, is a relatively young field of study, having begun in the late 1800s. We are still learning and uncovering a great deal of knowledge regarding brain activity, behavioral science, and mental processes. As is often the case, ignorance leads to fear and avoidance of the issue. When stories of mental illness are not preached from the pulpit or brought to light within the congregation, those who suffer depression feel the need to either hide their personal struggles or to leave altogether. The same Lifeway Research reveals 18% of individuals with mental illness leave the church because of a lack of response or even negative reactions to their struggles.
The Problem is the Heart
In the 1980s and 90s, biblical counseling rose to prominence within conservative evangelical and fundamentalist Christian groups, and it maintains its influence today. Biblical counseling, or nouthetic counseling as it is sometimes called, is a form of counseling repudiating mainstream psychology as radically secular, and asserts Scripture as the only true treatment for an individual's mental health problems. The core of mental illness, says this method, resides not in brain chemistry, but in the heart. At the Gateway Biblical Counseling and Training Center, in a conference offered to train biblical counselors, they reiterate the biblical counseling mantra: "The problem isn't the problem; the problem is the heart."
The way the church has framed depression spreads the idea that mental illness is a spiritual problem. One suffers from depression because of a lack of faith, a failure to garner courage to combat this inner demon. Imagine the mental and physical hurdles a depression person has to overcome just to get out of bed, out the door, and into church, just to be told that their struggles are a result of a lack of courage.
Jesus is Better than Prozac
Some people who struggle with depression have been prescribed medication. However, in church, there is a stigma attached to medication. If mental illness is treated as a spiritual problem, then the treatment can only be Jesus. Depression, manic disorders, schizophrenia, and related disorders can be prayed away. A corollary teaching is that if an individual continues to struggle with addiction or other mental health issues, they have not sufficiently repented and chose to live in rebellion and sin against God.
Treating depression with medication is also seen as a sign of weakness, an unwillingness to suffer. If you have Jesus, and Jesus is enough, then whatever else you're feeling needs to be carried as part of Christian living. The ability to withstand suffering is a mark of a saint. This teaching encourages depressed people to soldier on and on for the Lord until they become a shadow of themselves or disappear altogether.
This needs to stop. The church needs a fresh way of understanding mental illness to become a truly healing place for our brothers and sisters who struggle with depression.