illnessIn this week’s edition of Self-Care Sunday, I’ll address the Christian’s response to mental Illness.

Mental Illness is NOT a Spiritual Problem

Depression. Anxiety. Schizophrenia. Bipolar Disorder. Alzheimer’s. Anorexia. Binge Eating. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. The list goes on. Physicians and mental health experts have classified over 200 forms of mental illness. It stands to reason that someone you know has a mental illness. That illness may or may not be diagnosed.

If you suffer from a mental illness, and feel that the Christian community has marginalized, misunderstood, or mistreated you. I apologize. My own ignorance about mental health issues and the unkind ways I acted in the past make me bow my head in shame. I want to share what I’ve learned with others so that we can all start doing our part to stop the stigma.

The month of May marks another Mental Health Awareness Month in the United States. Campaigns like #StoptheStigma have helped bring awareness to others that mental illness should carry no shame.

A diagnosis serves as a starting point for treatment, healing, and management, just like a diagnosis of cancer or diabetes serves as a starting point for treatment, healing, and management.

Unfortunately, while the secular world seems to receive the message, the Christian world lags behind. Christians balk at treatment, medication, and counseling. When a fellow Christian confides dark thoughts of suicide or self-harm, believers end up tongue-tied. Or worse, they offer to pray for the person or counsel them to ramp up their relationship with Jesus.

Mental illness is NOT a spiritual problem. #MentalHealthAwareness #mentalillness #depression #anxiety #suicide #bipolar Click To Tweet

Jesus can (and should) be part of the solution, but he is never part of the problem. Nor does your relationship (or lack thereof) with God cause a mental illness.

Physical Illness vs. Mental Illness

Mental illness is NOT a spiritual problem. Learn how to handle someone's disclosure without harming them. #mentalillness #mentalhealthawarenessThe mind is a beautiful and complicated organ that can get sick, just like your kidneys might get sick. Of course, when you get a kidney infection, antibiotics often cure the sickness. They don’t make antibiotics for mental illness.

But when someone gets a kidney infection or ends up having kidney failure, we don’t blame the patient. Likewise, when someone receives a mental illness diagnosis, we shouldn’t blame the patient.

If a friend revealed that they had received a cancer diagnosis, would you offer to pray for them and tell them they need to spend more time in prayer—and leave it at that? NO!

Yes, you would pray with them and for them. But I bet you’d never pray this prayer:

“Father God, Jim suffers from cancer. I pray that you give him strength to fight this battle and make sure he knows the importance of staying close to you as the cancer ravages his body.”

You would ask Jim about his treatment. He might even share what kind of chemotherapy or radiation regimen his doctors have prescribed. As his hair falls out and his appetite fails, you would buy him cool hats and bring him tempting things to eat. You would pray with him, take long walks with him, and celebrate when his blood counts improve.

In other words, you would come alongside him in his suffering. Good friends don’t drop by to suggest alternative therapies like carrot juice enemas, shark cartilage smoothies, or ‘this really good place in Mexico.’ They honor their friend’s intelligence and ability to investigate and make good decisions. Offering advice only when asked, they know how to help rather than manage.

The Tricky Part of Mental Illness

They physical side effects of cancer act as a badge that the sufferer has joined the battle against the dread disease. The baldness and frailty let strangers know to handle the sick one with care and prayers.

The side effects of mental illness don’t shout the same message. In fact, the side effects tend to alienate family and friends. Instead of hair loss, someone with a mental illness may experience weight gain. Rather than a look of frailty, someone with a mental illness may take on an I-can-do-anything-don’t-try-to-stop-me attitude. Instead of exhaustion, we might see quickly cycling moods that leave us feeling whiplashed. Rather than appearing in danger of breaking, a person with a mental illness may put themselves in danger through risky behavior that seems reasonable to them.

As Christians, we can handle cancer or kidney failure—but we do an abysmal job of coming alongside those who suffer from mental illness. I include my former self in this category. Before mental illness exploded like a meteorite in our family, I had no idea.

So, let me break it down for, Brothers and Sisters. Mental illness is NOT a sign of spirituality or lack thereof. People with mental illnesses are victims of an illness—NOT weak Christians.

They need help, but your self-righteous I’ve-got-this-together-why-can’t-you-act-like-me attitude makes it difficult for them to seek it. Furthermore, your self-righteous attitude drives wedges between the one who suffers and the God who loves them.

Your self-righteous attitude drives a wedge between those who suffer and the God who loves them! #Christian #MentalHealthAwareness #anxiety #depression Click To Tweet

When they come to you for help, they don’t really have the words to express what goes on in their minds. They hope you may understand and tell them they should seek help. When all you do is offer to pray for them, they walk away feeling burdened and belittled.

Don’t Mess it up!

A person with a mental illness already feels guilty enough (the devil loves to beat us when we’re down) for their behavior. Don’t add to their guilt. Mental illnesses often manifest themselves in extremes.

Just because a person seems incredibly righteous and vigilant in making sure that others toe the line, doesn’t mean that they have immunity from mental illness. In fact, unreasonably devout people may actual be exhibiting signs of mania. Likewise, just because a person gets drunk, acts promiscuously, or uses drugs doesn’t mean they have rejected their faith. It means their brain has gone haywire and things don’t make sense.

I confess I used to judge people who seemed righteously religious as being ‘good’ and ‘wonderful Christians.’ The people who struggled with drugs and alcohol and behavior I couldn’t endorse I termed, ‘fallen,’ and ‘in need of a Savior.’ In reality, they needed my compassion and friendship. They needed me to keep my mouth shut and my heart open. My prayers may have helped, but my willingness to listen and not judge would have helped them sooner.

People disclosing a mental illness need you to keep your mouth shut and your heart open. #MentalHealthAwareness Click To Tweet

How to Handle Disclosure

If someone discloses a mental illness to you (or that they struggle with anxiety, depression, self-harm, or suicidal thoughts), here’s what you need to do:

1. Listen

While you listen, keep your face filled with compassion. Pray—but silently, for wisdom and that the Holy Spirit guide your words and thoughts.

2. Ask questions.

Good ones to ask:
“What would you like me to do?”
“How can I help you?”
“Would you like me to help you find a doctor?”
“Do you have a plan for harming/killing yourself.” (If the answer is ‘Yes,’ skip to number five!)

3. Assure them that they aren’t crazy.

They probably already realize that something in their mind doesn’t work like other people’s minds. People who suffer need to know that illnesses have cures and remedies. They aren’t less than others because their mind processes information differently.

4. Share.

IF you have suffered from a mental illness and have found help through therapy, medication, AND healing in your relationship with God—go ahead and let the person know that they aren’t alone.

IF you suffered from depression or anxiety and were able to find healing on your own through reading wise counsel and self-help books—that’s awesome! But since you’re NOT a licensed counselor or psychiatrist, it’s safer to refer your friend to an expert and offer prayer support on the sidelines.

Some cancers can be cured with low-level, homeopathic treatments—but others call for an all-out chemo or radiation battle. Don’t judge someone else’s battle based on your own.

Don't judge someone else's battle by your own. #MentalHealthAwareness #mentalillness #stopthestigma Click To Tweet

Don’t disclose that your neighbor’s brother’s ex-sister-in-law felt the same way and committed suicide/struggled for years/never got help.

5. Take them seriously.

If they have a plan or have researched ways to kill themselves, take them to the hospital immediately. You may need to enlist help from someone else.

If someone shares that they cut themselves or have panic attacks or feel depressed. Take them seriously. Don’t just tell them you will pray for them. They disclosed this to you because they hope that you will understand and listen and help them take the next step.

Remember, when someone discloses that they struggle, your job is to listen, ask, assure, share (if appropriate), and take (them seriously or to a hospital). What they really want is affirmation from you that they have a problem, and assurance that someone out there can help them solve it. An offer to go with them to an appointment counts for more than an offer of prayer.

Just think of the acronym LAAST. The last thing you want to do is cause more harm. You should talk last, listen first.

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Mental illness is NOT a spiritual problem. Learn how to handle someone's disclosure without harming them. #mentalillness #mentalhealthawareness