Over the years, I’ve talked to several people who suffer from things like depression, excessive anxiety, or eating disorders. For many, those struggles have been a challenge to their faith, or a barrier to faith in the first place. For others, faith has been the only thing that seemed to carry them through the most difficult times.
In many cases, Christians have unintentionally made things worse for the people going through these things. We’ve too often rushed to judgment, given poor advice, or reeled off mantras about God being all we need and never giving us more than we can handle.
I’d like to share some brief words of encouragement for you who suffer with any issues similar to these. I’d also like to give a few suggestions to others about how we can respond well to anyone going through one of these issues.
To those who struggle
If you’re having trouble carrying on with everyday life because of intense and sustained emotions or because of an anxiety or fear that seems paralyzing, you may be dealing with a mental disorder. These moods might result from something like major depressive disorder (aka, clinical depression), bipolar disorder, or an anxiety disorder.
Of course, other causes could exist, too. You may be depressed because you’ve just gone through a stressful life event, or a medication or physical health problem has thrown you into a depression. Something as simple as a lack of sleep could be impacting your mood and mental abilities. If any of these are the case, you may not be dealing with a mental disorder, but your mental health still isn’t good.
If you’re showing signs of an eating disorder––not eating, barely eating, binge eating, vomiting or laxative abuse, or other things that suggest intense and unnatural emotions about food––you also may be dealing with a mental disorder.
Many of us recoil at the suggestion that we could have a mental health problem. It’s a blow to our pride different from most others. It feels more personal. It can make us feel like something is wrong and abnormal about us. But mental disorders are more common than most of us realize. In 2000, the World Health Organization estimated that 48.6% of Americans will experience a mental disorder in their lifetime.[1. See this PDF for the full research paper: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2560724/pdf/10885160.pdf%5D
I shared a simple definition for personality in the first post of this series. In it, I proposed:
Personality = disposition + mental health + character
This is important for us to consider here for two reasons.
First, if you have a mental disorder, it does not say something about your character. I’m worried that well-meaning people do harm when they misunderstand this. They expect you to snap out of it, change your attitude, or exercise more self-control. Their words suggest that something is wrong with your character, that you simply need to do better. The person who may provide the most critique is yourself, with heaps of shame and self-blame. Christians may be especially hard on you because they tell you that a Christian should be joyful, not depressed; reliant on God, not anxious; self-controlled about how you eat and not preoccupied with your appearance. They’re treating a health problem as a character problem, and it’s not fair.
I say that because I’ve seen several Christians treat people this way. I’ve also seen several Christians offer generous amounts of grace and concern and care for people struggling with these things. I hope that’s what you’ve experienced.
Second, if you have any problem with your mental health, it’s affecting your personality. It’s distorting your wonderful, God-given disposition, and it needs to be addressed.
If something like a physical health problem, a lack of sleep, or a stressful event has affected your mental health, perhaps an easy remedy exists. Maybe you need to go to bed an hour earlier for a week. Or maybe you just need to make it through a bad illness. But if the quick and easy remedies aren’t working or aren’t identifiable, I hope you’ll consider the advice below.
I would urge you to seek help from a mental health professional. Find a way to have an appointment with a psychiatrist, a clinical psychologist, or a clinical social worker.
I’ve seen several people reject these options. In the Christian world, I’ve heard people suggest that God can take care of these things––no need to get “treatment.” I agree with them. God can take care of these things. I’m sure of it. I also believe God can heal a broken leg. If my son breaks his leg, I’ll pray for a miraculous healing, but I’ll also be quick to the hospital.
[Edit: A helpful reader showed me how terribly incomplete this post is. Please also see “On mental health –– I was wrong. Or at least incomplete.” once you’re done here.]
While few people deny that they have a broken leg or refuse to seek treatment for it, I’ve encountered a number of people who deny their mental health problems or refuse treatment. Some of the saddest conversations I had as a pastor were the second, third, and fourth times I told someone I thought they needed to seek psychiatric or psychological help but they dismissed it––often acting astonished that I would suggest such a thing.
If more than one person has suggested that you may have a mental health problem, I urge you to take that seriously. Set up at least one appointment. Maybe that appointment will confirm for you that the others were wrong. Maybe it will be the beginning of getting the help you need. The people asking you to seek help have nothing to gain by sharing with you what they believe is a hard truth.
What are you seeking with treatment? We hope and pray for a cure––for the problem to be expunged. That’s often realistic, but we should also recognize that some of these issues may be like a chronic illness. They may always be with you. If so, the goal is to find a way to manage them, to live in health, even though you may live with the specter of illness hanging over you.
One other note about disposition and mental health: certain dispositions may be more prone to various mental health conditions. See at right the interesting infographic from HealthCentral.
A summary word to you –– can a good Christian be depressed? Or excessively anxious? Or have an eating disorder? Absolutely! These conditions may be no more a reflection of your character than if you had a broken leg or the flu or arthritis. But just as you would want to seek treatment for those issues––to seek a cure or a way to manage them well––you need to seek help for your mental health, as well. Without it, a mental disorder may be terribly distorting the beautiful disposition God has given you.
Three quick suggestions for all of us
If someone you know may be struggling with a mental disorder:
1 – Be careful and slow to make judgments about that person’s character. To treat them as if they need to shape up, have a change of mind, or make better choices is unfair and has more potential to make things worse than better.
To assume that the person just needs to accept God’s grace in changing/healing them isn’t entirely false. God may do that. But are you willing to say the same to someone with a broken bone or a chronic illness?
2 – It would be kind to try to help the person recognize their problem and get help. You walk a fine line when you do this. It won’t be helpful to go around telling people they have mental health conditions when they don’t. And that sort of suggestion will need to come with an abundance of tact and grace. Before you have a conversation like this, you should do some of your own research, consider what you should and shouldn’t say, and pray. When you talk to the person, you’ll need to give some appropriate disclaimers: “I’m not an expert in these things, and I might be wrong about this… but I care enough about you to share what I’m seeing and to ask you to consider a first appointment.” If you know that money could be an issue, you might offer to help cover any cost, or come with information about some low-cost options.
Pastors, this applies to us, too. Unless we’re trained mental health professionals, some of these issues cross a line beyond what pastoral counseling can and should handle. When we sense that line is being crossed, we need to refer.
3 – If you’re going to talk about someone’s potential problem, talk to the person, a mental health professional (to help you better assess things and properly approach them), or one of very few select people who may be better to talk to them. By very few, I mean perhaps the person’s spouse, other member of their nuclear family, or their pastor. If you don’t think the person is (a) willing, and (b) in a more suitable position than you to have this conversation, they don’t qualify here.
If you’re talking to anyone else about it––trying to “see if other people are seeing the same thing,” or “so they know how to pray”––knock it off! You’re not helping; you’re gossiping. Whatever is needed right now, it’s not that.
All of this only scratches the surface, but I hope it helps. I can only treat these things in general terms here. For any specific issue you’re considering, contact a professional near you or your pastor. Or I’d welcome an e-mail.
See my important corrective follow-up: On mental health –– I was wrong. Or at least incomplete.