Having Mental Health Issues Doesn't Mean You're a Bad Christian
In fact, owning up to your mental health issues is a sign of spiritual maturity.
I find it hard to confess that I was emotionally wounded. Because you might question my faith.
Worse yet, you’d probably accuse me of not trusting God enough or tell me that worry is a sin, so I should just stop worrying.
Because if I told you I had been feeling numb, lonely or depressed, you might accuse me of not praying enough, reading the Bible enough or applying it correctly.
So, you might be tempted to think that people who read the Bible every day and trust in Jesus and not drugs certainly shouldn’t be suffering from depression.
Or you might think of Sinead O’Connor who had a nervous breakdown live on Facebook this month, as she heartbreakingly cried: “I’m all by myself. And there’s absolutely nobody in my life except my doctor, my psychiatrist.”
Then, you might think that people who suffer mental anguish don’t have friends, suffered sexual abuse as a child or ripped up pictures of the Pope on SNL.
But it isn’t true.
I’m here to say mental health issues happen to everyday people—even to believers who are strong in faith and have friends, because it happened to me.
The bad part was the sense of shame some Christians made me feel about my emotional struggles, but as I discovered how God views healing, I realized it wasn’t my faith that was flawed; it was their views toward mental health and faith.
Today, I’d like to bust some of those myths and share the truths that transformed my journey of healing into beauty and meaning.
Google and the Anonymity of Pain
Last week, Google began addressing the U.S. depression epidemic by announcing a new feature to users who search for “depression” or “clinical depression” by offering a questionnaire, so you can “check if you’re clinically depressed,” to determine whether to seek professional help.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, one in five people suffer from depression. Think about it. Whether you’re sitting in a small group, at church, laughing with friends on Friday night, odds are you or a friend are suffering emotional pain, even if they appear happy, sociable and capable. It happens in ministry too, whether you’re a pastor, missionary or youth leader.
Google developed this tool to help users ask questions about mental health in anonymity, without the stigma or shame of talking with a doctor or someone they know.
But this isn’t the way it ought to be among people of faith, who Jesus calls us to love one another the way He loves us: unconditionally. We are called to be known. But how can we light to the world, if we can’t be light to each other?
I know it’s easier to hide because I once struggled with anxiety, panic attacks and insomnia. I didn’t want anyone to think I was broken, so I kept quiet and prayed it would go away. But God wanted to heal me, not shame me.
Emotional Trauma: Social and Christian Stigma
Out of the blue, during the happiest chapter in my life—being a Christian author; happily in love and married with two boys; someone who grew up an optimist in a single-parent family; putting myself through college; loving God, coffee, inductive Bible Studies, friends and ministry—I suddenly started having panic attacks and debilitating insomnia. And I didn’t know why.
It turns out because I was now grown up and safe, all the painful things I experienced as a child began to surface. Not because my faith was faulty, but because God loved me and it was time to heal what I overcame in the past. My post-traumatic stress disorder therapist told me that a soldier doesn’t experience trauma when he’s brave and fighting on the battlefield. A soldier only experiences panic attacks when he’s finally home—when he is safe to face what was too difficult to process at the time.
It’s actually God’s way of protecting us when hurt, fear or loss is too overwhelming. Our healthy nervous system, designed by God to automatically shield us in the moment, compartmentalizes pain for us, so we can get through hard things—temporarily.
Except I was confused. PTSD from childhood trauma? I never experienced physical abuse and I’d never been to Iraq or Afghanistan. How can I have PTSD?
What my therapist said next stopped me in my tracks: “Did you know emotional abuse has the same impact as physical abuse? You need to heal from Emotional PTSD.”
It is tough enough combatting the stigma of mental health in a culture that prides itself on entrepreneurship, self-reliance and curating Instagram-perfect lifestyles. But as a Christian, it was even worse. Speaking up about the emotional pain I once survived or was enduring, I ran into a lie often perpetuated in our church culture about mental health and spiritual fitness: If you’re feeling emotionally broken, your faith is weak or broken.
It’s the opposite. Healing parts of your heart that you’ve once put to the side—whether to survive, to be strong, to avoid pain or take care of others—may be the most powerful act of faith, that God is calling you to make today.
What Keeps You Silent?
So, where is the Church’s voice on mental health—other than simplistic Sunday School answers, guilt or silence? Because the Church is often slow to address realities that the culture is first to voice—whether through arts, film, music and, unfortunately, through stories of pain and tragedy in the news. It’s up to us, the regular, everyday people in the trenches of real life to speak the truth and tell our stories about the work God’s doing in our lives and what He’s saying to us through the Scriptures.
Because the truth is, you and I are the Church.
In that spirit, here are the top five myths and truths I’ve uncovered in my books about my journey to find rest, practice soul care and experience the peace and joy that comes from healing.
5 Myths and Truths About Mental Health and Spiritual Fitness
1. Myth: Jesus commanded us, “Do not worry.” If you worry, you are sinning.
Truth: Jesus was encouraging us. There is no need to worry about money.
In Matthew 6:25, Jesus was not issuing a command that makes worry an act of sin when he said, “Therefore, do not worry.” Jesus was giving us the reason why “You cannot serve God and money” in the previous verse. He was giving us encouragement not to worry about money because God will provide for us, like the birds of the air and flowers in the field.
So, be at peace. God understands why you worry. He loves you. He is the God of comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles (2 Corinthians 1:4).
2. Myth: Trust God and you’ll have peace and joy. If you don’t have peace or joy, then you’re not trusting God enough.
Truth: Emotional honesty is an intimate act of trusting God with your real self, instead of hiding how you feel or trying to do or be more.
Jesus says, “Come to me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest for your souls.” – Matthew 11:28
Notice Jesus doesn’t say, “Come to me strong, cheerful, calm and untroubled.”
It’s the opposite. We’re invited to come to him weary—whether confused, numb, anxious, angry or stressed. Jesus tells us to simply come, as we are. Imperfectly His.
3. Myth: If you read God’s word more, pray more, praise more, give thanks more, rejoice more, etc.—you will have peace that surpasses all understanding.
Truth: Faith is not emotional amnesia. Faith gives us courage to face the brokenness of life and heal from the losses we’ve suffered.
Jesus Himself obeyed, prayed, praised and gave thanks perfectly. Yet He suffered emotional trauma, overwhelmed by impending physical and emotional abuse, abandonment and betrayal: “My soul is deeply troubled, overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Going a little farther, He fell to the ground …” – Mark 14:34, 35
When the apostle Paul encourages us not to be anxious, but to pray, give thanks and present our requests (Philippians 4:5, 6), he was encouraging us to experience the peace of taking our problems to God, rather than finding peace in our ability to solve them with our own understanding. This wasn’t meant to indict us for experiencing anxiety.
4. Myth: The Bible says forget the past and focus on what’s ahead.
Truth: God remembers the moments that break us. We go back to heal our past with Jesus, to experience His love intimately and recover all parts of our hearts with Him.
“You keep track of all my sorrows. You have collected all my tears in your bottle. You have recorded each one in your book.” – Psalm 56:8
When the Apostle Paul said, “Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead,” he wasn’t talking about erasing his past. Read Philippians 3. You’ll discover he was referring to forgetting his old way of life as a Pharisee, focusing his worth on how things appeared and spiritual performance. Paul was focused on knowing Jesus intimately and sharing in “His sufferings, being conformed to Him in His death.”
5. Myth: You don’t need a therapist. You just need Jesus and God’s Word.
Truth: If you look at most instances of healing in Scripture, someone had to step out in faith and take action to go somewhere, see someone or ask for something.
If you’ve been hurt, you deserve to take care of yourself now that you’re safe to heal with Jesus. God’s words will give you strength to heal and investigate your emotional wounds. Just like God uses skilled doctors to help us heal from physical wounds, God uses psychologists to help us heal our nervous system and process memories that once wounded you, so that you’re free to sleep, rest and access all parts of your heart and your story.
You story is worth remembering. You are worth valuing.
Be curious. Let God love you. Take the intimate journey of healing.
You’ll be amazed by the beauty and be transformed by it.
To learn more about PTSD: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psychological_trauma
– To learn about EMDR Therapy: Among the hundreds of types of therapy, the treatment I found most effective and gave quickest relief and results for panic attacks, anxiety and depression, for me personally, is what the State Department of Defense uses to process vets from the battlefield (even though I’m not a solider): http://www.emdr.com/what-is-emdr/
– To find a Christian therapist, you may consider: http://www.aacc.net/about-us/
– If you’re in a moment of crisis and you’re in emotional distress right now, don’t hesitate to talk. Call 1-800-273-8255. https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/