Wednesday was World Mental Health Day, a day to bring attention to mental illness and fight the social stigma attached to it. Thankfully, our country is becoming more open-minded on the topic. Michael Phelps is disclosing to the world his struggle with anxiety and depression and advertising an online option to traditional therapy. Earlier this year Harper’s Bazaar ran an article, “39 Celebrities Who Have Opened Up About Mental Illness.”
Unfortunately, the stigma is very much alive in many of our churches. Being spotted going into the psychologist’s office can land you on the prayer (gossip) chain quicker than the choir director behind you at the grocery store while you’re trying to buy a bottle of wine.
My depression first reared its head post-partum. I suffered two years knowing something was terribly wrong, but convinced that I could fix it. I was too ashamed to admit I needed help. Too proud to admit that I just couldn’t get myself together. I went to extremes to make sure everyone else only saw the wonderful version of me, even if that meant vacuuming at 4:00 am and never taking my baby to the sitter in her pajamas. When I hit my breaking point and sought help with counseling and medication, I was such a better mom; a better person all around. I was so relieved to know I no longer had to live that way.
A short time later I joined a Bible study group at church. The leader was an older, well-respected, long time member of the church. When the topic of depression came up, her response was, “If you are truly a Christian, you should never be depressed. You have no need for anti-depressants, you have Jesus.” (insert flushed face, wide eyed emoji here) So, I was no longer crying in the formula and screaming at laundry stains, but now Jesus didn’t love me nor my 20mg of sanity. With comments and attitudes like that, is it any wonder we put on our church masks on Sunday mornings. We end up keeping secrets; fearing we will be judged “not good enough” “not a real Christian” or even “demonic”. In addition to a biology lesson, my gray-haired, group leader matriarch of the church, needed to brush up on her theology. Bless her heart. It is our spirit that connects with God, not our brains. Our spirit is what God created to live eternally, not our bodies.
Misconceptions like these from ill-informed people who do not understand that our brains are organs, just like our lungs, hearts and kidneys, help to perpetuate the stigma surrounding mental illness. I fully believe that God can heal our bodies, but sometimes His answers are “no” or “not right now”. When that is the case, we seek treatment and medications. I doubt many of us would encourage our loved ones to stop taking their high blood pressure medication and tell them to “Just snap out of it, you don’t have any reason to have high blood pressure.”
People in our churches should be able to request prayer for depression, anxiety, or bi-polar disorder as easily as if it were a broken leg or a heart attack. It may take some education and a shift in thinking, but when we choose to love and support and not judge and whisper, then we will give others the freedom to take off their masks. The thing about masks is that once someone removes theirs, more start coming off. There is someone out there waiting to say, “Me too. I thought I was the only one.”
Carla Edmisten lives in Ladysmith, VA with her family. She is a social worker, writer and speaker. Invite Carla to speak at your event, get more information here.