It is my testimony that God’s love is with us in the midst of mental health challenges. I know this because I’ve lived my whole life in the shadows of mental illness. For too long, the stigma and shame of mental illness in the church has kept too many of us isolated and alone in our struggles. When surveyed in 2013, more Christians said they would rather have leprosy than mental illness. It’s time to start telling the true stories of how our lives are impacted by mental health challenges. Having a mental illness does not make us unclean, unworthy, or unwanted. People living with mental health challenges are beloved by God.
Before the pandemic, one in four people reported experiences of mental health challenges. As we move into the second year of the global pandemic, we remain isolated physically for safety reasons at the very time when half of the American public report symptoms of depression and anxiety. This means that people in our churches (and the people leading our churches) are hurting: emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, and physically. Add to this the burden of caregiving, whether for children or aging parents, and pretty much everyone is feeling the extra stress and hardship of what it takes to survive a global pandemic.
This is what I know: when we break the silence about mental illness, we break free. We break free from feeling like we are the only ones. We break free from perfectionism. We break free from toxic spirituality and theology that says mental illness is God’s punishment for sin. We break free from shame that says we did something wrong. In our freedom, we experience the fullness of God’s grace and mercy.
As people of faith, our spiritual healing comes through liberating theology that affirms we are all created in the image of God no matter what our mental health challenges or where we are on the mental health spectrum. God wants us to flourish emotionally and mentally, and often this means getting mental health support through the use of medications, therapy, and support groups. We can pray, read the Bible, and take anti-depressants, too.
As faith leaders, taking care of our own mental health is part of our calling. It means having an annual “check-up from the neck up.” It means engaging in wellness practices to prevent serious mental illness, to promote recovery, and for symptom management. It means taking our Sabbath days seriously and using all of the vacation days gifted to us. Do you know your mental health status? To get started, you can use this free online mental health screening provided by Mental Health America.
For faith leaders shepherding your congregations
- Encourage people to know their mental health status by using a free online mental health screening
- Include in your pastoral prayers people living with mental illness, naming the real issues of depression, anxiety, ADHD, PTSD, eating disorders, bipolar disorder, suicidality, and schizophrenia
- Preach on the topic of mental health. Lift up the promises of scripture that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, not even mental illness (Romans 8:39) and that even though we walk through the valley of the shadow of mental illness, God is with us (Psalm 23)
- Remind your people of God’s love and compassion for people living with mental illness and their loved ones
- Know that mental health challenges impact our relationships, our partners, our family members, our friendships and our loved ones. Symptoms of mental illness impact how we communicate and how we relate to others, and how we connect. It can be hard for someone going through a mental health crisis to know how to get help or be able to ask for help.
Practices you can try in shepherding your congregation
- Break the silence about mental illness in your congregation by reading a book together and having discussion. Blessed are The Crazy: Breaking the Silence About Mental Illness, Family, and Church has a free, online group discussion guide and Blessed Union: Breaking the Silence About Mental Illness and Marriage contains within the book discussion questions, prayers, and a guided journal for reflection. (In addition, buying in bulk orders of 10 or more from Chalice Press will provide you a one-hour complimentary zoom session for me to guide a conversation about mental health with your group.)
- Include in your premarital counseling conversations the topic of mental health. Blessed Union will guide you in important topics to cover and helpful resources to share. My book provides these sample marriage vows:
- “This is my promise to you: I will see you as a whole person, and not as your worst symptom. I will love you for who I know you to be, and not for how you feel or behave. This is my promise to me: I will see myself as a whole person, and not as my worst symptom. I will love myself for who I am known to be, and not for how I feel or behave. This is my promise to us: We will seek support from family, friends, and wider circles of care so we can faithfully fulfill these promises. We will bless our marriage each and every day knowing God is love and trusting God is with us.”
- Start a spiritual support group. My congregation began meeting on Zoom last May every week on Thursday for a time to check-in, share about how we are doing, and get prayer support. Faith communities can create healing circles where it is safe to share our stories without fear, shame or judgement. The United Church of Christ Mental Health Network has developed a guide for how to start a spiritual support group.
- Deaths by suicide are increasing in the United States and are the 10th leading cause of death. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for young people ages 10-24. The church can help be a protective factor for youth by communicating and showing young people that God loves them as they explore their gender and sexual identities because LGBTQ youth are at heightened risk for suicide. The Trevor Project has excellent resources for supporting youth mental health. If you are in crisis, call the toll-free National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The service is available to anyone. All calls are confidential.
- Educate yourself about mental health. Get certified in Mental Health First Aid, which is now a virtual training that will prepare you for how to respond to a mental health crisis.
- Become a stigma buster. Be mindful of the language you use and how you talk about mental health. Help to normalize the full spectrum of mental health experiences by acknowledging that for many of us our mental health can be fluid, changing day to day, or even hour by hour. It’s okay to not be okay.
- Pray for people living with mental health challenges and their loved ones. Pray for people to be connected to affordable, quality mental healthcare.
- Advocate for mental health services in your local community. Ask your elected officials to provide funding to mental health services and to provide mental health professionals in the public schools.
Today is the day to take steps to break the silence about mental illness. Connect to mental health resources in your community. Create spaces for support so that no one experiences extreme forms of loneliness resulting from stigma and shame. Invest in your own mental wellness by being proactive to care for your whole self: mind, body, and spirit. Know that you are not alone and that you are loved.