If you’ve seen the movie or read the book Fight Club, you know that the first rule of Fight Club is that you don’t talk about Fight Club.
And it turns out that mental illness shares the same first rule as Fight Club: you don’t talk about it.
Over the years, I’ve written a number of blog posts about struggling with mental illness, and without fail, I get emails and comments from people profusely thanking me for talking about the issue. They’ve struggled for so long and are so grateful that someone in the church is actually talking about it.
Because we just don’t talk about it much in church. Like Fight Club.
And trust me, I understand why we don’t talk about it. As one of the crazies, I understand just how weird mental illness is. When I’m in a spiral of depression or anxiety, I’m not a normal person. My thinking gets whacked out and I don’t want to interact with other humans. I see the world the world through darkened, distorted lenses, and the things that help and encourage normal Christians don’t do jack for me.
It’s a very isolating experience, and most people simply don’t understand it. Because they don’t understand, they don’t know how to effectively minister to me or encourage me, which then leads them to stay away from me.
Now let me be clear about something: I don’t fault them for this.
It’s hard enough to minister to normal people, let alone whack jobs like me who don’t want to be around people.
But, I do think non-crazy Christians could do a few things differently to help us crazy Christians more effectively. (Side note: I have no specific person or church or pastor in mind here. This was not written TO anyone. You’re so vain you probably think this post is about you.)
Here are just a few recommendations…
(Other side note: this isn’t meant to be one of those self-pity party, NO ONE UNDERSTANDS ME, type posts. I really just want to give voice to a common struggle so we all can serve each other more effectively.)
Don’t call everything sin.
Many people assume that things like anxiety and depression are the same as worry and unbelief. This assumption then leads them to say things like, “You just need to believe God’s promises more,” or, “You need to put this worry to death.”
But I can assure you, both from my own experience and from talking to others, that mental illness is not the same as sin. Yes, there are many times when depression and unbelief are symbiotically interwoven. Yes, bodily anxiety can often tempt a person to sinful worry.
But most of the time, I feel awful for no reason whatsoever. I simply wake up with my heart racing or my head stuck in a black cloud of despair. It’s not that I’m doubting God’s goodness or in a state of atheistic unbelief. I’m not actively worrying about anything.
My body and brain are broken.
I often hear Christians say, “But isn’t the solution to every struggle to have faith in Christ and his promises?”
Yes, it is in the ultimate sense. Jesus truly is the answer for every struggle. But the way we point people to Jesus also matters. When a person is diagnosed with leukemia, we don’t immediately tell them that Jesus is the answer. We get them appropriate physical treatment, we patiently listen to how their sickness affects their life, and we support them, all the while reminding them that Jesus is with them in the midst of it all.
When someone tells me that the solution is to simply have more faith, I pull back from that person and isolate myself more. Because the immediate issue isn’t my faith, it’s my body. Yes, there are times when my body tempts me more toward worry or despair, but this isn’t normally the case.
If you really want to help those who are struggling, don’t assume they’re sinning. Listen. Ask questions. Ask them what it feels like. Pray for them. Be present with them. Don’t prescribe solutions. There may be a time for that, but certainly not right away.
Treat someone struggling with mental illness the same way you would treat someone battling any other bodily affliction.
Don’t Give Suggestions
It is both a human and God-given impulse to want to help someone who is suffering. Unfortunately, when people make suggestions to those who are sick in the brain, it can actually do more harm than good.
Suggestions usually involve your own experience. You were sad once and then you did this thing and the sadness went away. So maybe that would help their deep depression.
But this almost never helps because regular sadness and depression are two massively different things. Every human experiences sadness, while only some experience depression. What helps sadness usually doesn’t help depression.
Because these suggestions almost never bring relief, it can make the sufferer feel even more isolated. They don’t want to keep receiving these unhelpful tips and lifehacks, so they simply cut themselves off.
Unless you have specifically experienced what they are experiencing or are a trained medical professional, the best way you can serve your struggling friend is simply with your presence.
Be with them.
Pray for them.
Remind them that it won’t last forever.
Affirm your love and God’s love for them.
Remind them that other Christians, like Charles Spurgeon and William Cowper have also endured great mental affliction.
Read them the Psalms.
Compassionate presence is one of the most underrated spiritual gifts, but it’s incredibly helpful for the crazies like me.
Validate The Struggle
Can we just all agree that mental illness is straight up weird? You can’t see it, there is no way to scientifically diagnose it (like you can a virus), and treatment can be really difficult. And some people, like myself, have developed a series of elaborate coping skills over the years which allow them to, for the most part, behave like somewhat normal people.
The ephemeral, hidden nature of brain sickness can lead some people to talk about it as if it’s not a real struggle or illness. Like it’s in people’s heads rather than in their brains. Like it’s something that only affects weak and failing Christians.
Because we don’t talk much about it in church, it can make those who suffer feel like no one takes their illness seriously. When someone gets sick, we make them casseroles, but when someone sinks into depression, no one really notices.
When a sufferer lets you into their world, affirm that what they are feeling and experiencing is very real. The depression and bipolar and anxiety all exist.
Pastors, it’s really helpful when you occasionally mention these things from the pulpit. Simply acknowledging the existence of mental illness to the church takes the subject out of the taboo darkness. No, you’re not embracing a therapeutic view of the world that minimizes sin and responsibility. You’re acknowledging the reality of living in a world where brain and body and soul are thoroughly broken.
encouragement, Patience, and Help
1 Thessalonians 5:14 says:
And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all.
I find this to be a really helpful paradigm for serving those who struggle with mental illness. We are fainthearted and weak, and we need encouragement, patience, and help.
Even though I’m not an easy person to encourage or be patient with, I’m so grateful for my many friends who stick with me.
By the grace of God, let’s all grow in our encouragement and patience toward one another.