Art by HeeJoo Roh
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“Dear God, please help me not to be anxious. Please forgive me for my sins and lack of faith. I trust in you and your plans for me. I am trying to be better. I don’t know when I will be, but please help me to be better. In Jesus’ name I pray, Amen.”
That was what I prayed nearly every morning before entering high school. While on its own it seemed harmless, I did not realize it came from a place of deep fear and guilt.
For years, I believed if my faith was strong enough, the anxiety and depression that burdened me daily would be resolved. The verses I took comfort in promised me restoration, but over the years, I only felt worse and worse. What was I doing wrong? Was I just a bad Christian?
What I didn’t know then was that there were at least hundreds of other Christians who experienced this as well.
Kintsugi Hope, a mental health charity, surveyed about a thousand Christians of different denominations, and found of the 43% that experienced mental health issues, only 35% felt their church community was supportive, 91% believed mental health remained stigmatized and over half noted it was rarely spoken of in the church, according to Premier Christianity.
Stigma within the church can be subtle, but still harmful. Common examples include telling someone to simply pray, read the Bible more, trust only God to fix it, etc. Oftentimes, this counsel comes from well-meaning family, friends and advisers.
But these responses to someone’s suffering are simply “pat answers,” a term used in physician Dwight L. Carson’s book Why Do Christians Shoot Their Wounded? Helping (Not Hurting) Those with Emotional Difficulties. On its own, simply telling struggling Christians to pray and read more is inadequate. There lies the problematic implication that if someone lives a perfect spiritual life, then they should be free of emotional illness.
“An honest answer would have been better than my ‘scriptural one,’” Carson said.
As exemplified by my own experience, engaging in more spiritual practice did not cure my mental condition. That is not to say it was harmful or unhelpful. To an extent, my faith kept me going in difficult times. But at the core, I lacked the care and knowledge I truly needed to deal with my emotional turmoil.
Just as we require surgeries, medication and annual checkups for our physical health, we should take steps for our own mental health and be supportive of those who need it as well. Mental illness is not a sin or the result of a lack of faith, but a real, breathing affliction that permeates many, if not every, aspect of a person’s life.
If someone opens up about their personal struggles, the best thing someone can do is simply listen. Keep an open mind and heart, embrace them for who they are, and if they ask, offer input and perhaps prayers. It might not feel as “productive” as counseling them right off the bat, but taking the time to listen will speak volumes.
Pepperdine Religion Professor Noemi Palomares also cautions Christians tend to jump into “savior mode.” Unintentional harm can be inflicted when Christians, who are not doing well themselves, attempt to be a part of someone else’s journey. When they realize they need to take a step back, it can leave the person feeling abandoned.
“It would be a disservice to just put on our Christian hats and say, ‘We’re gonna love on you, no matter what.’ Cause that might take a toll on our own mental health,” Palomares said.
Everyone is deserving of love, and my hope is that people may find the courage and receive the care they need. It is by no means an easy journey — some days will feel like square one again. But there is hope, and contrary to what it may feel like, things can get better.
Though I wish my own church had spoken more on mental health, I consider myself very blessed and grateful for the support of my family and friends.
“If your religious space does not affirm your mental health, feel free to find a new one where you can feel safe to share,” Palomares said.
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