Welcome to Day 4 of our “Suffering in Silence” week! Drake Barber at drakejbarber.com and I have teamed up this week to bring awareness to a mental illness, depression. Today we want to discuss one of the factors that contribute to the epidemic of suffering mental illness in silence and that is the church. Sure you would think that the church wouldn’t be one of the reasons so many refuse to speak out and seek help for their depression, but sadly it is and we want to dig a little deeper into that. Just think back on how many times within your church depression or any mental illness was discussed. Think back on any support groups that were formed to help those with this need. I know personally this was not something I saw in my church growing up.
As mentioned earlier this week mental illness, specifically depression, is not viewed in the same light or weighed the same as physical illness. In our churches we often lift up people for prayer when they are dealing with a physical ailment, but not mental. How many times have you heard someone struggling with depression being lifted up for prayer? I bet none. Why? Too personal? I think the idea behind mental illness is that it is a result of something the sufferer has or has not done, whereas physical illness is the result of life happening. We don’t question the lifestyle factors of someone who ends up with heart disease, but we do question and even put to shame the lifestyle factors of someone suffering depression. I can see why it would be difficult for one to speak about this in their church/community.
One of the phrases I’ve often heard used as a solution to things that didn’t have clear answers was/is, “just pray about it”. That seems to be the easiest answer to a complicated situation. The problem with this is that it sends the message to those who suffer that they haven’t prayed and that their lack of prayer and faith results in the depression. This is a dangerous message. There are genetic, environmental, situational, physical and, yes, even spiritual factors that can contribute to depression that stretch beyond a persons control. One can’t simply “get over it” by just “praying about it”. Yes, we should pray and have faith that we can overcome anything, but the bible does say that faith without works is dead (James 2:26). To just pray about the depression without doing anything else is not treatment. Depression is simply not a spiritual problem requiring a spiritual solution. Just like you wouldn’t tell someone with a broken leg to just pray about it, you shouldn’t tell someone suffering with depression to just pray about it.
What I have learned is that many of our churches don’t have the appropriate framework for dealing with mental illness. This can create fear, intimidation and uneasiness within our pastoral staff and as a result these things aren’t addressed within the church. Many ministers in the church are aware of the challenges of depression and other mental illnesses, but they don’t have the expertise in effectively providing support within the church. Christianity Today reports that in a survey conducted among 500 leaders in Christian ministry, 16% indicated they feel “not equipped at all” to minister to people with mental illness. Another 53% feel “somewhat equipped.” Only 30% feel at least “competent.” When the pastoral staff is not equipped to deal with depression this may result in leaning toward a spiritual solution rather than psychological or medical treatment.
I believe that our pastoral staff within our churches should be educated on mental illnesses to first debunk the myths and misconceptions. Gaining an understanding and being exposed to truth leaves less and less room for fear, incompetence and ignorance. I would love to see more social workers, clinical therapists and counselors within the churches bringing mental health awareness into the church. Start talking about these topics and stop treating them as if they don’t exist within the lives of Christians. We also have to stop thinking that just praying and attending church fixes the problems we face on a daily basis. We can go to a doctor when we are physically ill, but we can’t go to a therapist when we are mentally ill? Why not? We have to start normalizing mental health just like we normalize physical health. We have to stop shaming people and making them feel like their depression is their fault. We have to stop making people feel like they are crazy because of depression or any other mental illness. It’s bad enough people get that in the world, but to still receive that type of treatment within the church is disheartening.
Another solution is to start providing resources for mental health treatment. With the help of social workers, therapists and counselors within the church, a network of community resources should be available within the church. Find ways to combine spiritual healing with mental health treatment. I think both go hand in hand with recovery. Just like we offer ministries for financial peace, physical health, singles, married couples, and many other ministries, there should be a mental health ministry within our church. Sure people may be apprehensive at first, but that comes with the history of this missing link of treatment for depression in the church. The more people see this as a source of help, the more those walls will come down.
Acknowledging personal fears and ignorance, providing education, building relationships with community resources, creating support groups and breaking those barriers are all ways in which the church can better help those who suffer from depression and other mental illness. People need to know that their church is a safe place for them to not only get help spiritually, but in other areas that affect that daily lives like mental health.
I’d love to hear your thoughts about depression and the church. If you have a personal experience or even a personal opinion, be sure to comment below.
Don’t forget to visit drakejbarber.com to learn about gospel singers who have struggled with depression within their own church.
Until next time…