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Modern Christianity’s Mental Health Stigma Must End

Modern Christianity’s Mental Health Stigma Must End

Last week, pastor John MacArthur went viral for saying something I’ve feared for many years.

“I was reading a book, interesting book, called A Profession Without Reason,” MacArthur said. “It’s a book that shows, basically, this is pretty shocking to some of you, that psychiatry and psychology is finally admitting the noble lies that they’ve been telling for the last 100 years.

“And the major noble lie is there is such a thing as mental illness,” he continued. “Now, this isn’t new. You have Thomas Szasz … writing a book, who was a psychiatrist, on The Myth of Mental Illness. There’s no such thing as PTSD. There’s no such thing as OCD. There’s no such thing as ADHD. Those are noble lies to basically give the excuse to, at the end of the day, to medicate people. And Big Pharma is in charge of a lot of that.”

It’s not the first time he’s mentioned this. And it’s not the first time I’ve heard a Christian say this. A few years back, I told someone that I struggled with mental illness.

I could hear the disapproval in his voice. I watched my feet as I shuffled them side to side. I couldn’t look him in the eyes. And I remember thinking, “I wish I never told you about my anxiety.”

It was in that moment when I drew the conclusion that I had made a terrible mistake — the mistake of disclosing my mental health struggle to my previous boss.

The only thing more threatening than mental health stigma is someone’s ability to hold your mental health against you. That’s what happened to me with a previous employer. Amidst a myriad other factors, I felt discriminated against for having anxiety in the workplace. And get this — it was a Christian organization!

“Have you prayed about this? You might want to consider getting prayer.”

And just like that, I was dismissed. With a slap on the wrist and a call to prayer.

As I sit here writing this article, I can’t help but feel trepidation about sharing my story with you.

I don’t want to portray myself as the victim or as someone who insists they have the ultimate say when it comes to mental health awareness.

I can only speak from my own experience, and hopefully that will help others who can empathize with my story and challenge those who have the power to change the way we talk about mental health, and thus combat mental health stigma.

The Church has an ugly relationship with mental health: self-medication or spiritual meditation. We can’t seem to pick a spot in the middle. We avoid the golden mean: recognizing the role that supernatural healing plays yet acknowledging that our bodies are very broken, and more importantly, very human.

“Pray about it. Have more faith!” If I had a dollar for every time I have heard this uttered from a well-meaning church leader, I could quit my day job.

I am not for one second saying prayer is irrelevant. I wholeheartedly believe in the power of prayer. Prayer can change lives, heal relationships. Prayer can move mountains. What I am warning against are the instances when the Church uses clichés to dismiss what is a very complex and multifaceted issue. Prayer certainly plays a part but that is only one side of the coin.

While there is real truth in bringing everything in prayer before the Lord, this kind of cliché rhetoric, if used void of empathy and understanding, can cause more harm than healing. How we talk about mental health can perpetuate stigma within a community that is desperately looking for answers and trying to make sense of the monster that is poor mental health.

I’ll never forget that painful encounter I had with my ex-employer about my “issue.” In exchange for my vulnerability, I was handed a dose of judgement. Get yourself sorted might as well have been written across his forehead.

Sort it out. My anxiety. My dirty little secret.

The more people I speak to about mental health, the more I realize its commonality. Anxiety knows no boundaries. Anxiety doesn’t discriminate. Anxiety doesn’t care how old you are, how much money you have in your bank account, what name brands you wear or what neighborhood you live in.

Despite their prevalence, stigma is keeping us from sharing our mental health struggles with one another. Friends of mine with whom I have shared life’s ups and downs for years, have only recently uncovered their personal battle with anxiety and depression. Am I surprised? We have grown up in the age of individualism. Indulgent perfectionism masked as confident self-reliance. Our culture leaves little room for real vulnerability.

Don’t make a mistake. Get your crap together. And don’t let anyone see.

And with little buffer between employers and their employees, for example, it is no wonder that in Scotland (where I currently reside) around 40 percent of people prefer to keep their “dirty little secrets” under the radar. According to a study of UK workers by the London-based Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development course providers, researchers found that 85 percent of workers thought there was a stigma attached to mental health issues in the workplace.

The survey, which polled 1,000 working adults, revealed that 26 percent had taken a sick day due to a mental health problem; more than half (58 percent) revealed they weren’t comfortable telling their boss if they were diagnosed with a mental health problem, and only 20 percent believed that their employer would be supportive of their employees battling a mental health issue.

Sadly, it appears that we, as a society, do not feel safe around one another to ask for help or share our inner struggles, thus leaving us to suffer alone and in silence.

As someone who has shrunk in my pew at the sound of “Do not worry about your life” sermons ringing from the pulpit, I can assure you that nothing makes me less likely to attend my place of rest than the fear that I do not have my “stuff” together. Or worse. The fear that others think I do not want to get it together. That being anxious is some form of wallowing self-pity simply rectified with a bottle of Prozac and an adult coloring book. If only. 

If the Church wants to be seen as a thought leader within culture, a voice for the least of society, then it must change the way it talks about mental health. The dialogue must change. It must work to break down stigma that’s permeating every sphere within our society.

Believe me—if “having more faith” was the magic bullet to eradicating my anxiety completely, then I would ensure my church attendance was peaking around 100 percent.

We need to find a compassionate and informed way to talk about mental health problems and their prevalence amongst men and women in our community. Coming to the understanding that we can be both faithful and broken at the same time is the first step. Recognizing our humanity amidst our faith feels counter-intuitive, but this is one of the most important steps we need to take if we want to combat mental health stigma.

I can have both faith and anxiety at the same time. My moments of weakness do not discredit my faith in the One who has overcome my weaknesses. On the contrary, Jesus’ humanity displayed over 2,000 years ago gives me peace with the truth that I am His child—full of faith and full of doubting.

Full of peace and worry.

A very human woman.

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