A friend asked me a challenging question. I looked down as she waited on my answer, wondering what to say.
“No, I wouldn’t want to be living without a mental illness,” I told her. “Living with bipolar disorder has shaped me into who I am today, and I would never want to change that.”
Patricia was surprised by my response, assuming most people would wish away their mental health struggles if they could. I explained to Patricia that it had to do with the way Jesus Christ used my struggle to grow me and transform me more into His image.
Mental health struggles still carry a stigma in our society, but statistics show nearly one our of every five Americans suffer from mental illness each year. That’s approximately 42.5 million Americans each year.
This time of year, those numbers rise with seasonal affective disorder—a kind of season-based depression commonly called “winter depression.” This kind of mental illness affects 10 million Americans, and experts estimate that an additional 10 to 20 percent suffer from “mild” seasonal affective disorder.
So if you experience mental illness, you’re not alone.
And I’ve learned that God uses these sufferings to transform us, and those around us, into looking a little more like Christ.
The hard times teach us to rely solely on God.
During the ups and downs of living with bipolar disorder, the one constant reliable source of hope and peace has been God. Family has been supportive, friends have been there for me, but Jesus is the one whose presence was always felt, and who guided me through difficult times.
In my most depressed state, it was God who kept me moving forward, even though I felt like giving into despair at times.
When you rely solely on Jesus, and draw closer to him, you grow to be more like Christ. Paul illustrates how weakness can be viewed in a positive light in this passage:
Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. 2 Corinthians: 7-10
The struggle gives us empathy for others who are marginalized.
Experiencing mental health struggles has helped me empathize with others who suffer, whether that be mental health related or not.
I grew up in an affluent family in a country where I had rights and many opportunities. Those of us who grew up in countries where we had opportunities at our doorstep may find it challenging to empathize with those less fortunate. Given my upbringing, if I had not experienced challenges with my mental health, I would likely be more self-centered and judgmental.
Jesus wants to shape us to be closer to His image. He wants to mold us into people who care for others, especially those on the margins. In my case, Jesus used my mental illness to help shape me into who He wants me to be.
I wouldn’t be an advocate for people with illnesses if it hadn’t been for my own personal experience, and this is an important part of my identity.
Our story helps to dispel the stigma.
Stigma around mental illness is a sad reality. But there can always be a way to turn things around. I have had many opportunities to educate people about mental health challenges. Using my own story, I can tell people about bipolar disorder. When people have negative reactions to me having bipolar, I tend to view this as an opportunity to educate someone, rather than take it personally. It has taken a while for me to get here though.
Jesus combated stigma in his day, people with leprosy or who were disabled were outcasts by society. Jesus advocated for these people, and aligned himself with them. We can do the same as insiders, advocate for people who have a mental illness. Dispelling myths and fear around mental health challenges is doing work Christ would want us to do.
God didn’t put us on this Earth to have a comfortable life. He wants us to fight injustice, including stigma around mental illnesses.
Jesus wants us to align ourselves with those who suffer, and it is often easier to do this if we have experienced suffering ourselves. He wants us to rely on Him and trust that God will bring us out of situations that were difficult, but which helped shape us into being more like Christ.
After all, isn’t that the goal of a Christian, to walk in the footsteps of Jesus and be His hands and feet to the world?
People with mental health challenges have a unique role and calling as members the church. We have the power to change the opinion of those around us about mental illness. The question Patricia asked me was, “If you could wish away your mental illness, and the struggles it has caused you, would you?”
My answer remains the same.
Andrea Jongbloed lives in Abbotsford, BC, Canada with her husband. She works as a community mental health outreach support worker with Fraser Health. She has lived successfully with bipolar disorder for 18 years and is passionate about mental health recovery. In her spare time she enjoys the outdoors, particularly sailing.