Tearing Down the Walls of Silence
Depression and mental health have become a greater part of the cultural conversation lately. And to some extent, it has for the church, too.
On April 5, 2013, Rick and Kay Warren’s son, Matthew, took his own life. He was only 27 years old, but had struggled with depression all his life. The Warrens have been very open about their son’s death and the need for the church to help people who struggle with mental illness.
There’s often been a stigma attached to it—as if having faith in Jesus makes you immune from suffering from mental illness. The truth is, Christians get depressed, too. And thankfully, more of us are willing to talk about it and support each other.
According to a new study on mental health and faith, co-sponsored by LifeWay Research and Focus on the Family, ministering to those with mental illness remains a challenge.
That’s partly because dealing with mental illness, like other chronic conditions, can feel overwhelming. Patients often feel as if their diagnosis defines their life, while counselors and even pastors can forget that people with mental illness still have a spiritual life.
As a result, churches sometimes miss the chance to minister to those with mental illness.
“Because of the way we have ignored mental illness, we are hurting people,” says Ed Stetzer, executive director of LifeWay Research. “We’ve created a stigma.”
In the midst of planting a church, depression struck Art Greco. He found himself at a red light near his house, but could not remember where he lived. Despite overcoming depression, Greco says he still walks with an “emotional limp.”
The nightmare of clinical depression hasn’t been turned into a Disney fairy tale. But in a strange way, its destructive power has worked some good in my life.
I used to pray that God would release me from depression or at least help me survive it. Now I pray that God would heal my life and put to death some of the self-deception I still carry with me—like the fear I have that people will look down on me because of my depression. Or my oversized ego tempting me to pretend the illness doesn’t exist or insisting I can’t be sick because my church can’t survive without me.
In this Q&A, Lizette Beard talks with Matthew Stanford, a professor and co-founder of Grace Alliance, a non-profit organization that helps churches learn how to best minister to those with mental illness and their families.
We’ve found that faith can be incredibly therapeutic and empowering. It really is the foundation of our hope. And without hope, there is no recovery. When we begin with a client, we try to re-establish what their identity is in Christ. From there we can move forward because now they understand hope isn’t a feeling. Hope is a person—Jesus Christ. Regardless of the circumstances, there is hope.
When ministering to people with mental illness, it needs to be about who they are in Christ, the rest they have in God, and the character of God—the love He has for them.
Amy Simpson shares her family’s struggle with mental illness and how the church can better respond to both the individual suffering and his or her family.
People who live with mental illness, whether their own or someone else’s, need to break the silence. They need to speak and be heard in the church and elsewhere. They need the church to break its own silence as well.
So many have allowed stigma and fear to prevent acknowledgment that mental illness exists within the walls of churches. The silence sends a clear message that God is not interested in their suffering, serious problems have no place in the church, and our faith has no answer for hardships like theirs.
Thom Rainer gives some of the reasons why pastors often experience depression and offers practical help for those struggling with depression while in the ministry.
Depression was once a topic reserved for “other people.” Christians, especially pastors, aren’t supposed to feel depressed. Aren’t these servants of God supposed to have their acts together? How could pastors and other ministers experience the dark valley of depression?
The truth is, pastors are as likely as other Americans to experience mental illness.
While many within the church suffer from mental illness, too often the church refuses to discuss the issue. Ed Stetzer says it is past time for church leaders to be involved in the mental health discussion.
The Bible teaches that Christ’s followers are meant to serve the broken and the hurting. When Jesus announced His ministry in Luke 4, He said He had been sent to preach good news to the poor, captive, and blind. Throughout His ministry, Jesus served the hurting.
The world is continuously surprised, however, that the followers of Jesus are less inclined to do the same. So, the church shouldn’t abdicate to nor isolate from those trained in these fields but, instead, find the place of tension in the middle from which the gospel flows forth unimpeded to the hurting.
Despite being a successful pastor, Mark Dance shares how depression almost drove him out of the ministry and offers tips for pastors dealing with mental illness.
After pastoring in a fog of clinical depression, I came very close to walking away from my church and the ministry five years ago. I had been pastoring for 22 years at the time, and was burned out and fed up—mostly with myself.
Thanks to the help of my doctor and therapist, I would learn what role mental illness had in my decision-making. Fortunately, my depression was temporary and treatable, as most are if diagnosed early. However, many pastors struggle with mental illness in secret isolation—we have a role to play, expectations to live up to, and people to please.
Focus on the Family offers a free guide to serving those with mental illness as well as other resources.
Ministry in the Face of Mental Illness Bible Study
For churches looking to address the topic in their small group ministry, Bible Studies for Life made a session focused on mental health available for free – including both leader and personal study guides.
Serving Those With Mental Illness
Pastor, author, and professor David Murray developed this free ebook using the findings from LifeWay Research and Focus on the Family’s study.
Breaking the Silence: When Christian Leaders Speak Openly About Depression
Wheaton College President Phil Ryken spoke about his bouts of depression and shared five gifts from God in times of trouble.
Mental Health, Counseling, and the Local Church
Brad Hambrick, a trained counselor, pastor, and professor, writes frequently on his blog about depression, mental illness, and the church. He has also made available an online depression and anxiety evaluation.
Several recent episodes of Ed Stetzer’s The Exchange have touched on mental health.
Kay Warren discusses her own personal loss related to mental illness and what the church can do to help.
Amy Simpson, author of Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission, shares how the church can better minister to those with mental illness and their families.
Pastor, musician, and author Carlos Whitaker describes having a panic attack on stage at his church and how the church should confront the stigma of mental illness.