The Church hasn’t had the best track record dealing with mental illness. Often, things like depression are treated as a purely spiritual issue, resulting from a lack of faith. But in recent years, the conversation has shifted.
The organization To Write Love On Her Arms has been a big part of that conversation. Since 2006, TWLOHA has encouraged those struggling with depression, addiction, self-injury and suicide to get help and seek treatment.
We talked with TWLOHA founder, Jamie Tworkowski, about stigmas, the hope for the Church’s conversation about mental health and how to help those who are struggling.
Q: What do you think about how depression and suicide are addressed within the Church?
A: You’re starting to hear more about it. We’re all for the Church beginning to go there, and the Church talking about it. Sometimes it’s heartbreaking what it takes for people to have the conversation.
This stuff is part of being alive. Regardless of where you live, what you believe, this is part of being human. I grew up thinking being a Christian means you’re superhuman, and you’re blessed, and you have joy and you’re kind of just supposed to be happy. And I’ve come to believe that we’re still human. We still suffer and struggle, and it’s a big part of our story and our life here. It seems really healthy to invite people to be honest. And to believe that we’re loved by a God who cares about our pain and invites and can handle our honesty.
Q: Addiction and depression sometimes gets viewed as spiritual weakness. What do you think about the tension of physical healing and spiritual healing?
A: Wow. I think so much of it is that stigma.
We sometimes almost joke that if someone breaks their arm, nobody tries to hide it or fake it, nobody plays it off, nobody doesn’t get help for that. And yet when it comes to mental health and addiction, for some reason, we treat it so differently. I’m comfortable saying “I don’t know” a lot, and I think just as we pray for someone who has cancer—sometimes people get healed, sometimes they don’t, and I can’t explain that.
We have reason to hope, not just eternally, but even in light of these issues short-term, in this life. I get to hear from people whose lives suggest it’s possible to change. So I think we push for that. We push for people to fight for their healing, to sit with a counselor, to do what it takes, but we also know it can be heavy and confusing for a lot of individuals, for a lot of families for long periods of time.
Q: Rick Warren has helped push mental illness to the forefront, how do you think this will influence the Church moving forward?
A: Man, I think it’s great. Clearly he’s a guy with tremendous influence. And he has a personal story, this isn’t just a random thing he decided he wants to talk about. This is deeply personal for them. The little bit I have learned, even in reading his letter … the first thing that came out publicly after they lost their son, I just thought it was right on, and it seemed like they tried to do everything right. They didn’t try to pray it away, they tried to get him help.
There are so many people in churches and outside of churches across the country and around the world who can relate to what Rick and Kay have had to live through—the loss of a son or daughter, a wife or husband. You start to look under the hood and realize this is so common and such a crisis. And I’m all for people going there, and obviously if someone has a degree of influence it’s great because it gets out even more.
Q: When someone’s struggling with depression or addiction, it can be hard to trust God to bring healing. What insights do you offer to help?
A: The phrase “let go and let God” isn’t one we think a ton about. There’s a phrase I wrote in the original story. “What if God invites us to be the answer to some of our prayers?” I guess to be His hands and feet and love people. We’re invited to step in and love people. We can’t control their response, we can’t control if they accept it or hear what we have to say, but we can control whether or not we show up.
We really give a lot of thought to what does it look like to love someone who lives in a place you’ve never been, a place maybe you don’t understand? To love someone who’s maybe even struggling for a long period of time? For us, it’s not a super spiritual sounding conversation. We really come back to encouraging people not to be alone. We sound like a broken record pointing to counseling and just saying so often that is the perfect first step.
If somebody’s struggling or a friend is struggling just trying to get them into counseling. Maybe it’s a Christian counselor, maybe it’s not, but to talk to someone with wisdom and experience and perspective. I really think that’s a tool that God provides us in this life. And if you pray for them along the way, that’s great, but I think there’s a lot more we can do.
Q: How do you approach someone who has all the symptoms of clinical depression but insists they’re fine?
A: I have a counselor friend who is a believer, and he talks about the need to balance honesty with compassion.
Honesty is the idea of telling someone the truth, and maybe asking the hard question or saying the hard thing. Compassion means making sure as we do it that they know we love them and that we’re for them and committed to them.
I think the hardest part of these conversations is we can’t control if someone hears us. It may not be a thing where there’s instant fruit or gratification, but there’s so much value in relationships and trust and friendship. And when you really know someone you can tell them when they’re off. In a way, we earn that right to be heard.