4 Misconceptions About Mental Illness and Faith

A few simple reminders.

I sat in the chair in my pastor’s office, listening to him list off strange things I had done recently. My pastor informed me, “the church leadership is not convinced you are mentally stable enough to continue leading your bible study.”

It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. I had come here to talk about the book I was writing, on mental health and spirituality. Instead, I felt bombarded with accusations. I sunk into my chair, listening. All I could do was fight the tears welling up in my eyes. I left feeling judged and misunderstood.

As Christians, we are called to be accepting of marginalized people, but many find this difficult to practice, particularly when it comes to people with mental illnesses. Why is it so hard? What people hear on the media and from society creates a culture of fear around mental illness. This fear is often disproportionate to the reality. God tells us in Isaiah 41:13 “For I am the Lord, your God, who takes hold of your right hand and says to you, Do not fear; I will help you.”

Fear is always a bad starting place; it can make us label and distance people from us, blinding us to what is true and good in them.

Fear is always a bad starting place; it can make us label and distance people from us, blinding us to what is true and good in them. Jesus tells us in Matthew 28:20, “surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age,” we need to trust in His presence as we move outside our comfort zones. Jesus asks believers to reach out to marginalized people, even if it makes us uncomfortable or jeopardizes our social status. What are we to do as the Church, if God is with us and tells us not to be afraid?

Many people with mental illnesses experience discrimination in church settings. I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at 13 years of age—quite the shock for a teenager with no knowledge of mental illness! My church and Christian friends were supportive of me. At another church, the community respected me, but I exhibited no mental health symptoms at that church. It was only when I became visibly unwell that fear gripped those Christians, so they over reacted.

As someone living with a mental illness, I have learned to extend grace to those who treat me poorly. Their negative reaction often comes from a place of fear and lack of education, rather than intending harm. Many people with bipolar disorder have manic episodes, which are temporary. However, there are cases where delusions are constant. We need to be prepared to interact with those who have chronic mental illnesses as well as milder forms.

Here are a few common misconceptions about mental illness and how Christians can respond.

1. People With Mental Health Conditions are Unsafe.

Most people with mental illnesses are peaceful and respectful of other people. According to the Institute of Medicine, “Although studies suggest a link between mental illnesses and violence, the contribution of people with mental illnesses to overall rates of violence is small, and further, the magnitude of the relationship is greatly exaggerated in the minds of the general population.”

When the news reports a mentally ill person being violent, consider how it would feel if you had a mental illness rather than subscribing to a culture of fear.

2. People With Mental Illnesses are Unpredictable and Difficult to Relate to.

I know many people who have professional jobs, raise stable families and also live with a mental illness. When someone is unwell, they may become unpredictable. This is not their normal way of interacting, and many people with mental illnesses have a plan in case they become unwell—for example, informing a family member and adjusting their medications.

Give someone the benefit of the doubt, assume they will be dependable, show up to meetings and relate well. Extend grace and understanding when they are struggling with their mental health. Some people with mental illnesses may have trouble relating to others. Embrace the challenge of interacting with a human being who may have had more struggles in life than you.

3. Most People With Mental Illnesses are on Welfare or Homeless.

Most people with mental illnesses are not homeless. However, as this article from the Washington Post points out, “because the relatively small number of people living on the streets who suffer from paranoia, delusions and other mental disorders are very visible, they have come to stand for the entire homeless population, despite the fact that they are in the minority.”

If homeless people come to our churches, it is especially important to reach out to them. Treat them as equals, and have a genuine conversation with them, rather than migrating only to people you’re comfortable with.

Have potentially awkward conversations with newcomers who struggle with their mental health. You will be blessed with stories of struggle, resilience and redemption

4. People With Mental Illnesses Would Rather Not Talk About it.

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It is surprising how open people can be about their mental health journey. One woman I met in church told me she had a mental illness and shared her experience of discrimination because of it.

This conversation depends on the person; some people are very open, and others are private. You may find you are blessed with more awareness when you listen to the struggles of someone with a mental illness. Respect where the person is at with their ability to share, and be open to hearing their mental health struggles.

Love Your Neighbour (With a Mental Illness) as Yourself

The common stigma against mental illness is exactly what led my pastor and the church leadership to have a negative view of my condition. In light of this, we the people of God have an invitation. In Mark 12:31 Jesus tells us to “love your neighbor as yourself.” I believe welcoming someone with a mental illness into Church is a great place to exhibit this.

Be open to learning about mental illness. Have potentially awkward conversations with newcomers who struggle with their mental health. You won’t regret stepping outside your comfort zone. You will be blessed with stories of struggle, resilience and redemption. If you’re lucky, maybe you’ll even become part of someone’s story of recovery and reconciliation with the Church.

Top Comments

Thomas Henley III

1

Thomas Henley III commented…

This was an article that needed to be written. One in five people in America have some form of mental illness. Sadly, most people don't seek treatment because of society's stigma. The church should be seeking active ways to become more knowledgeable about mental illness and build bridges to bring healing and restoration.

Keren Gilbert

3

Keren Gilbert replied to Daniel DuVal's comment

It sounds more a case of not feeling supported in a time of need. I agree people are happy to listen to testimony when a person displays no symptoms or is between episodes - but are very uncomfortable and withdraw when the season gets tough. I think that's what the author is saying - they really needed to feel understood and supported rather than simply being told to step down.

12 Comments

David Thorne

54

David Thorne commented…

Thanks for sharing. We have a lot of depression and anxiety in our family. As a church, I think it's important to mention those things to help others know it's ok. It's helpful to go to counseling and anyone can suffer with depression sometimes. Thanks for your honesty and sharing.
www.refuelblog.com

Patty

2

Patty commented…

This article is actually coincides with what's happening in my personal life only the other spectrum. I would love to get advice because helping people should be paramount.

A lady with a mental illness began attending our Bible Study. Very kind!! But it turned into calling everyday to complain about her marriage, showing up to my home randomly uninvited all different times of day and then somehow got my husbands cell number to contact him. I have created some boundaries but my question is; when someone is obsessive compulsive and continuing to create negativity especially affecting your young family, what do you do??

I also suffer from ADD; so I have a hard time with anxiety!! My hair starts falling out.

Want to help but don't know how? How to have a healthy relationship.

srgwriter

20

srgwriter commented…

I agree the 4 points that were posted by the author. Love and understanding is very necessary. If all of us are honest, we have had some point in our lives where we have had issues with mental health. However, I could understand the pastors concern over leading a bible study, depending on what the symptoms were. Such a position requires a state of mind capable of high levels of discernment, and again, not knowing the full story I could not disagree with what a pastor thought was best those in his charge.

Tom Roberts

2

Tom Roberts commented…

I was ordained to the ministry when I was 19 and was pastor of two country churches my first two years in college. Those are my credentials to comment on your article. Often when I preached, I was overwhelmed by clinical depression. My friends and family said I just needed to pray more to feel better. It was the late 1960's and early 1970's and long before anyone spoke openely of mental illness, especially in the context of Christianity. My misery got the best of me with an attempted suicide my junior year and finally departure from the ministry. I was plagued with depression self-medicating with alcohol and careless sexual behavior until I was 42. It was then that I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Had I felt I could have spoken to someone in the church about my feelings when I was 19, perhaps my path would have been much happier. Today, I am blessed with the ability to tell my story to college students in "The Speech I Wish I Had Heard When I was an Undergraduate." I speak of my experience in the Church with regret hoping those who hear me will have a better experience as society becomes more educated about mental illness.

Gabrielle Tollerson

2

Gabrielle Tollerson commented…

I definetly know how that is!

Gabrielle Tollerson

2

Gabrielle Tollerson replied to Gabrielle Tollerson's comment

cuz i have a mental illness,and I'm always upset,but then i go reaaally into a high mood,and it feels like nobody understands except God Himself

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