Mental Illness Won’t Make God Love You Less
This article was originally published on Relevant Magazine, Having Mental Health Issues Doesn’t Make You a Bad Christian, by Bonnie Gray.
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 in February, 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
Back in February, 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 to love one another the way He loves us: unconditionally. We are called to be known. But how can we be a light to the world, if we can’t be a 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. And, your 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.