Tuesday, August 12, 2014

It's High Time for Christians to Stop Demonizing Mental Illness

Today, I decided it was time to finally join the 21st century and get an iPhone. This is my first smart phone ever, and I knew I had to get one now because it's just expected in the work force. It's not an excuse to be like, "I'm sorry, I didn't get your email yet because I was in court with no Internet access for three hours." That's like saying to your boss, "I'm sorry, I can't type up that memo because I don't have a computer." Well then get one and figure it out, because it's expected of you. So I got one. And I really like my new phone. It's lime green (just like my car). But I digress.

Christian at the Apple store helped me get the phone all set up. He was really cute and nice and I was secretly hoping I might walk out of the store with a phone and a date. We had a lot of down time waiting for my contacts to get imported and for AT&T to run a credit check on me and so forth, so Christian and I started talking about Robin Williams' suicide yesterday. I told him that I hope the good that might come out of this is to raise awareness about how big of a deal mental illness and depression really are, and how misunderstood they tend to be in our society. Then this afternoon, I read this article by Matt Walsh and it made me mad. I am not trying to attack Matt Walsh because he has written a lot of articles before that make me want to say, "Thank you for speaking truth when no one else would dare to do so!" And I'm more than willing to give him the benefit of the doubt that he wrote this article from a well-meaning place. But what he actually wrote? It does nothing but shame people--Christians in particular--who suffer from depression and mental illness (and this blog post is going to focus on depression primarily as it affects Christians). Frankly, it's this sort of ignorant, condescending junk that makes many Christians so afraid to seek treatment for mental illness or to even admit to others that they think they might be struggling with it. And I don't normally say things like that, but this needs to be said. For all my fellow Christians out there reading, we all need to sit down together, pour ourselves some after-dinner coffee, and have a long chat about this topic. It's high time.

First of all, I am tired of the church acting like people who have depression have spiritual problems, have inadequate spiritual lives, or just need to have more of the joy of the Lord in their lives because "joy and depression can't coexist." It doesn't exactly work that way, and it's called clinical depression for a reason--because it is a DISEASE. It is a chemical imbalance in the brain, not a sign that you are a spiritual failure. And ultimately, what is the purpose of us getting on our high horses and being like, "Well, so-and-so has a spiritual issue or he wouldn't be so sad" or "So-and-so needs to have more joy in her heart"? This makes Christians who are depressed feel like they are failing spiritually in addition to the mental and emotional pain they already feel, and it probably makes them want to say, "Thanks a lot for making me feel even worse!" It is incredibly painful when fellow Christians call your faith into question or act like you are doing things all wrong in your walk with the Lord, or when they act like your spiritual shortcomings are the cause of your problems. That hurts, and why would we want to pile more pain onto Christians who are already knee-deep in the darkness of clinical depression? It's beyond me.

And maybe we wouldn't be so quick to make these stupid snap judgments about people with mental illness if we 1) had actually experienced it ourselves, or 2) had watched a loved one or friend experience it. It is so easy to speak from your place of having a healthy mind, "Suicide is a choice. Depression is a choice. If so-and-so really wanted to, he/ she could get better." Right. I understand that for people who hurt or kill themselves because of depression, no one makes them cut themselves, or overdose on the pills, or engage in any other act that brings about self-harm. And in all cases, it is tragic. But do we really believe that people who decide that life is so empty and meaningless and painful that they want to kill themselves are capable of rational decision-making about the acts of self-harm or suicide? I don't think so. It's too easy to say that suicide is a "choice" that someone should never make. But I believe that when mental illness reaches certain levels, it can lead people to do things that, in the moment, are not really their "choices" and do not emerge from a rational, thought-out decision. This is just another way to shame people with mental illness, and guess what? It is exactly this sort of demonizing of mental illness in the Church that makes so many Christians afraid to even admit to others that maybe, just maybe, they need help. For those who have never experienced the depths of mental illness, there is simply no way for them to understand what people go through who have suffered from it.

Along those lines, we need to stop saying that suicide is selfish. I've heard this my entire life, and I understand where this is coming from--it's easy to assume that someone who decides to end their life, leaving those who love them to grieve, is making a selfish choice. But again, I don't believe it's really a "choice" to someone with severe mental illness, at least not in the way mentally healthy people define "choices," and I think we are sorely mistaken to assume that suicidal or deeply depressed individuals go to the extremes they may go to because they're being "selfish." They just want their pain to stop. If you were in unrelenting physical pain, you would probably do just about anything to make it stop, wouldn't you? How would you feel if people told you, "You're being selfish by wanting to make this pain stop?" Is it really that different when people suffer from the constant emotional pain of mental illness? Most of us don't have any clue what it would be like to wake up morning after morning, for months and years at a time, feeling like life was meaningless and devoid of any pleasure and joy--yet this is exactly what many clinically depressed people experience. Who are we to say they are selfish for wanting to make their pain stop? But for the grace of God any one of us could be in that boat at any time. And I am not trying to say that people who are contemplating suicide have no options--I'm just trying to say that for most people in that situation, it probably doesn't really feel like they have a "choice." They don't need the world to be on their case about being selfish--they need help.

The church also must stop acting as if depressed people just need to pray about their condition or be prayed for. I am a huge believer in the power of prayer. Prayer is not a last resort. It is a first resort. As long as you can pray, you will never be in a situation where you are "powerless" to do anything, because you can pray. With all that said, I don't believe that prayer was ever meant to be a be-all and end-all that gets us off the hook from taking action to solve problems. Prayer was never meant to be an excuse to sit back and do nothing; it was never meant to be a spiritual Band-Aid that we slap on someone's gaping emotional wound; and it was never meant as a free pass to not take actions to help ourselves. And many times God clearly shows us courses of action that can help us "answer our own prayers," in a way. Let me give you an example to show what I mean by that--praying about my finances or for God to provide for my needs is not a free pass for me not to have a budget and save some of my money each paycheck. And in this context, the answer to prayers for mentally ill people is very often going to be medication, therapy, or both. Prayer by itself is not the same as treatment. Prayer was never intended to be a substitute for practical solutions. Can you pray about being physically healthy? Of course, but if you expect those prayers to be effective, you're going to need to eat right and exercise too. So we as a Church need to stop acting as if depressed people just need to "pray" about their condition more. Prayer is a wonderful thing, but God sometimes provides us with the answers to our own prayers in the form of treatment, and it's ok to use it! It's not like saying that you don't believe prayer is powerful enough or that you don't trust God to heal you.

What do we as believers have to gain by demonizing mental illness in other believers? Does it help make people who suffer feel better? Or does it just allow some people to feel all high and mighty from a place of, "Thank God I've never suffered from that"? These attitudes have gone on long enough and they need to stop. In fact, they have to stop if we want to see change on the way the Church handles mental illness. I desperately want to see that change. I want to see it in my lifetime. I'd love to see it now! Have you ever wondered why our churches often tend to have such a high percentage of people in the most dire stages of mental illness? Maybe it's because these people should have sought treatment long ago, and could have improved their condition by doing so, but never did because they were terrified that, on top of everything else, they'd get marked as a "bad Christian" if they did. I'm over it. Let's end these damaging attitudes. Where is the grace to be found in heaping judgment and shame on people who experience a private pain that many of us will never begin to understand? And I think we're called to be a people of grace.

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