Kristen Bell wrote an article for Motto online discussing her struggle with both anxiety and depression that sent the internet buzzing. She candidly wrote about her experience in an effort to encourage honesty and de-stigmatize mental illness.
It was powerful and necessary.
Mental illness is a topic we should not be afraid of in the church, yet it seems there is still some fear and misunderstanding surrounding it.
A Problem We Can’t Ignore
In Kristen’s article, she states that close to 20 percent of American adults face some form of mental illness in their lifetime. She goes on to say,
Mental health check-ins should be as routine as going to the doctor or the dentist. After all, I’ll see the doctor if I have the sniffles. If you tell a friend that you are sick, his first response is likely, ‘You should get that checked out by a doctor.’
But unfortunately, the church often misses a true understanding of what mental illness really is.
I recently spoke with a friend who has lived with clinical depression for many years. She shared with me her desire to see the church better empathize with her struggle, while also recognizing that many simply don’t understand and need to be open to accepting that reality.
“It’s hard for me to talk with many people in the church about this subject because they act like it’s no big deal, they brush it off, telling me I need to have more faith and to put my hope for the future in the Lord,” she said. “What they don’t understand is that it’s my faith that keeps me grounded at all. They think being sad and being clinically depressed are the same and they’re not.”
It’s a problem that comes from a good place: We want to put ourselves in the shoes of others; we want to understand. What we’re often missing is that there’s a distinct difference between being sad and being clinically depressed, worrying and having diagnosable anxiety, etc. and because of this, the temptation is to be a bit callous, to brush off the struggles of those experiencing mental illness as something much lighter than it is.
We hear sermons about being joyful, about casting aside our worries and having faith that moves mountains—and that is a good thing, a necessary thing as we grow to know, love and walk more closely to God. The problem comes when we simplify and subscribe those same formulas for mental illness.
For many years I lived in my own silent hell of anxiety. Everyday I’d wake up full of dread and fear as to what the day might bring. There were many days where getting out of bed felt impossibly terrifying. After getting to my breaking point I finally opened up and shared this with a close friend and my pastor at the time.
What I heard in return was it would all be better if trusted God more, I needed to “let go” and give Him greater hold of my life. As well meaning as they were, this advice left me feeling the opposite of encouraged—in fact, it gave me one more thing to be anxious about: that I clearly wasn’t a strong enough Christian and needed to try harder.
More Than ‘Advice’
Fortunately, that wasn’t the only advice passed onto me—through talking with another friend of mine I was given names for what I was experiencing and encouraged to seek professional help. Through counseling and medication I was able to start the healing process and while faith played a part in it, I needed more tools than just to “pray more.”
In many ways I credit that friend with saving my life.
I am thankful to have found someone who had gone before me and wasn’t afraid to say so. There is a beautiful and powerful thing that happens when we allow others to enter the dark parts of our lives; that, it seems, is when we start to heal.
Kristen concludes her essay by stating,
We’re all on team human here, and let’s be honest—it’s not an easy team to be on. It’s stressful and taxing and worrisome, but it’s also fulfilling and beautiful and bright. In order for all of us to experience the full breadth of team human, we have to communicate. Talking about how you’re feeling is the first step to helping yourself. Depression is a problem that actually has so many solutions. Let’s work together to find those solutions for each other and cast some light on a dark situation
As a body of believers, we have been given the gift of one another, a team to stand with us, but that only works if we’re all open to participating.
We must be willing to get a little dirty, seeking to understand the fullness of one another’s weaknesses, especially when addressing the reality and complexity of mental illnesses. We need to set aside our fears, looking more closely and deeply at the pain of others and be open to allowing people in on ours.
In this we can fully embrace one another and receive this special gift we’ve been given and better love people into health.