Article  Human Dignity  Sanctity of Life

Unmasking the shame of mental illness

This topic of mental health has long been taboo. The National Institute of Mental Health states that a full 25 percent of Americans are diagnosable for one or more mental illnesses. Despite this grave statistic, and despite having an entire month dedicated to bringing light to this often dark topic, it still does not get the attention it deserves—not from government officials, the community and certainly not from the church.

It seems that despite the words out of the mouth of Jesus that we (his followers) would have troubles (John 16:33), the Christian community often blames mental illness on sin or a lack of faith. And while there are certainly areas of sin that tie into negative emotions (such as having an affair leading to anxiety), all negative emotions are not a result of sin. The same goes with a lack of faith. Sure, we do allow fear and worry, doubt and insecurities to creep in when we do not have our eyes focused on the Lord, but that does not mean that all of these emotions (and others) are a result of lack of faith.

What is even more problematic, in my opinion, is when those who have severe or chronic mental illness are portrayed to not only have a sin problem or a faith problem but as individuals who are oppressed or possessed by the devil. This particular article is not about how to differentiate mental illness from demonic activity, but it is to offer some guidance as to how Christian counselors can help the church body unmask the shame of mental illness. Here are a few tips:

  1. Remember that mental illness is illness, and identify it as such. In the same way that most people would not claim that cancer is due to sin. In the same way that most people would be willing to take insulin if they had diabetes. In the same way that most people would have their appendix removed if it ruptured. So should we identify mental illness as an illness that warrants appropriate medical attention.
  2. Educate as many people as possible on the topic of mental illness. In particular, educate those who have influence over congregations, specifically pastors and other ministerial staff. Educate them on the difference between pastoral/biblical counseling and mental health counseling. Educate them on how to manage crises in the church. Make sure they have important resources (such as the Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-8255). Be there to support them as they support congregants with mental illness.
  3. Recognize that God supplies all of our needs (Phil. 4:17). Sometimes those needs are best met through means beyond what we, as Christian counselors, can supply. If serving as a lay counselor, take note of your own competency and when someone has a need that lies outside of your knowledge and training, refer. We must collaborate with other professionals. We must be open to our clients taking mental health medication. We must be open to looking at our clients from a holistic approach.

You see, as counselors, but more importantly as Christians, God calls us to comfort others. He tells us in 2 Corinthians that he comforts us so that we can comfort others. But comfort is an action. We need to get involved. We must pray, but we must also remember that mental illness is illness, we need to educate others to this truth, and we must work together to help those with mental illness.  We can’t just refer those with mental illness into the community and then forget about them. We need to walk alongside them each step of the way. So, yes, let’s work together to help take off the mask of shame that covers mental illness.

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