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The Stigma Around Mental Illness for Christians

by | Jun 5, 2023 | Mental Health

Forward, Together with western tidewater community services board

For decades there has been a debate regarding the stigma around mental illness for Christians. For centuries, people have considered mental health treatment and Christianity as two separate fields with no relationship between them. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), approximately 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. experiences mental illness in a given year. That’s 43.8 million people, or 18.5% of the population. And 64% of Americans identify as Christian, making it likely that mental illness affects this large population.

Christianity and the Stigma of Mental Illness

Many of these individuals turn to their church and their faith for spiritual guidance in times of emotional distress. Unfortunately, there is still a stigma attached to mental illness in many Christian churches.

Related: Sharing Our Personal Experience With Mental Health Reduces Stigma and Can Help Our Community

As one blog post from Geneva College, a Christian university, says:

“The prevailing culture of silence along with misguided attitudes and erroneous expectations often cause suffering believers to feel shamed, blamed and very unsupported.”

That means a lot of good, Christ-centered people suffer alone in silence. The statistics from NAMI also show that:

  • Approximately 1 in 20 adults in the U.S. experience a serious mental illness that substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities in a given year.
  • 19.1% of adults in the U.S. experience an anxiety disorder, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), or specific phobias, each year.

Christians are not strangers to emotional distress or to caring for those who are suffering. Christians have been providing counseling for many years, using the teachings of the Bible for guidance. However, some Christians find it difficult to understand mental illness. They may not even recognize it as an illness. Although they would accept that Christians can get physically sick, they might not think that they can also be mentally ill.

“They seem to forget that all human beings, since the Fall, are living in a broken world, with decaying bodies, trapped wills and disturbed minds.”

But the truth is that there is no more reason for a Christian to think they will never experience mental illness than there is to think that they will never get sick.

Why the Stigma Around Mental Illness Exists in Christianity

Is it wrong for a Christian to get depressed? Isn’t the joy of the Lord supposed to be our strength? How can we sing about peace and joy if at the same time we are feeling so depressed? Does that not indicate something wrong with our Christianity?

Not at all.

Not unless you want to dismiss the Bible. Jesus was overcome with sorrow, Paul knew what it was to struggle against the ‘fighting within,’ and we even have a book of songs (the Psalms) that frequently express the deepest sorrow, angst, and fears.

Suicide, depression, schizophrenia, and substance abuse are just some of the mental illness-related topics many Christians find it hard to talk about. Why is mental illness still such a taboo topic? Although each Christian individual dealing with depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, or PTSD has a unique and personal reason for not seeking support from others (whether from inside or outside of the church), there are some common experiences and misperceptions about mental illness within the Christian religion:

Mental Illness Is a Sign of Weakness

You will often hear people say things like “Man (or woman) up” or “You just need to be stronger.” Instead of being recognized for the legitimate, clinical condition it is, depression might be viewed as a personal flaw, character weakness, or, in some cultures or congregations, as something caused by a lack of self-discipline or willpower.

You Should Just Surrender Your Mental Illness to God

You can’t “pray away” a mental health condition. In an article for NAMI, Fonda Bryant, a long-time NAMI volunteer and NAMI North Carolina state board member, talks about her struggles with mental illness as a Black woman:

“Present-day African Americans feel we don’t need help mentally. All we need to do today is the same as our ancestors did, which is: ‘Pray about it. Give it to God.’ But you would not tell someone with cancer, diabetes, or [a] heart problem to just pray about it or give it to God, would you? You would hopefully say: ‘You need to see a doctor.’ But when it comes to mental health in the African American community, there is very little compassion or empathy.”

It Is Just God’s Way of Testing You and Your Faith

While Christians may have questions about why God has let them experience mental illness, it’s usually not helpful to tell them that their faith is being tested.

Rev. Alba Onofrio doesn’t believe in the idea that Christians face hardships because they’re being tested by God.

They go on to say:

“Some say it’s a test, being put through the fire; some … remind us that ‘God never gives us more than we can handle’ [but] I don’t believe God gives us mental illness or cancer or any other suffering as a test of our faith or a punishment for the lack thereof. And I know from the incredibly high statistics of suicide among certain marginalized communities that some times we are absolutely faced with more than we have tools to handle.”

Your Mental Illness Is Punishment for Your Sins

Jennifer Knapp, a singer-songwriter, shared the story of her lifelong management of depression as a Christian, saying:

“I have experienced the best and the worst of faith-based responses to my mental health. At its worst, I have experienced utter rejection from the church. Other times, I have been counseled to absorb my sufferings as a punishment for my sins and a call to repentance.”

You Are a Disappointment to God and a Bad Christian

Even mature Christians, including many contemporary faith leaders, experience sorrow, sadness, and grief. As did the prophets, apostles, and Jesus himself. Experiencing sadness, grief or even mental illness does not make you a bad Christian.

How You Can Help a Believer Who’s Experiencing Mental Illness

Things are slowly changing for the better and many Christians and clergy members are now taking mental illness much more seriously. However, accepting the fact of mental illness does not mean that we do nothing or that we are just stoical about it. So what can we do to help?

Make Sure They Have the Support and Resources They Need

Supporting someone dealing with a mental health condition often starts with simply listening. By listening, and asking questions to further your understanding, you can find out what you can do to help. After you’ve ensured they’ve been heard and understood, offer further emotional support, as well as practical support (like helping them find a therapist or local resources that can help).

Join Them in Prayer

While you cannot “pray away” mental illness, you can join with a believer in prayer to strengthen their trust and provide comfort and hope.

A Community of Hope

Western Tidewater Community Services Board is the go-to authority on mental wellness for Franklin and Suffolk and the counties of Isle of Wight and Southampton. If you or someone you know is struggling with a mental health concern, we are here to help.

We offer individual counseling, family counseling, help for substance abuse, after-school programs, and more.

Ready to get the help you deserve? Schedule a same-day appointment online or by calling us at 757-758-5106.

Need to talk to someone right away? Call the Region Five Crisis Line at 757-656-7755 or by dialing 988.

Remember – You are NOT alone.

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