“‘What, you broke your leg? Well, you just need to pray more and keep a positive attitude. How about you spend some time in the Word?’ This is what it would be like if we, as a majority of Christians, treated physical injuries the way we treat mental illness.” Senior vocal performance major Nathan Robe posted this on his Facebook profile. He has clinical depression.
Robe is not alone. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, more than a quarter of American adults suffer from some kind of diagnosable mental illness. These include depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia, just to name a few. These diseases are a serious problem that require an appropriate response. By and large, however, the Christian community is failing in that response.
We fail in a number of ways. As Christians we live under the belief that God is alive and active in the world around us. We forget that as individuals, our actions are often how God chooses to act.
“There are times where I have had more help in most situations from my non-Christian or even atheist friends rather than my Christian friends because they understand that, a lot of the times, the help you’re supposed receive is from another person, that that is the vessel that goes to help somebody,” Robe said.
This is a wake-up call. We are called to love each other and reach out to those who need us and yet non-Christians sometimes seem to get what we overlook: No good thought, intention or Scripture can replace action.
Misunderstanding is the next big hurdle that stands between people, especially Christians, and being able to reach out to their peers struggling with mental illnesses. We act as though they simply have a negative mindset or perhaps negative experiences that can be fixed with a positive outlook or enough positive experiences to counterbalance them. This is simply not true.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness defines it as “a mental condition that disrupts a person’s thinking, feeling, mood, ability to relate to others, and daily functioning. … Mental illnesses are medical conditions that often result in a diminished capacity for coping with the ordinary demands of life.”
Mental illnesses are just that: illnesses. And like other illnesses, they have specific symptoms, causes and methods of treatment. We hear stories of people who have been miraculously cured of diseases, but there are millions more who only found wellness after a long road of recovery. This is true of so many depressed, bipolar and anorexic individuals as well.
Prayer and Scripture can be powerful tools of encouragement on the path to recovery as they can be in any struggle, but in the area of mental disorders, Christians have the tendency to present them as the cure itself. This is done with the best of intentions, but intentions do not change how the advice is received and the damage that is done.
“One of the things that bothered me was being told I just needed to pray more or that I needed to spend more time in the Word,” Robe said. “… It was their way of saying, ‘Well, you’re doing this wrong and this is happening to you for a reason. It’s because you don’t do these things.’ When you start [trying to be more 'Christian-like'] and things continue to go the way they have been, you begin to wonder, ‘Am I not doing it right?'”
Whether or not Christians intend to communicate these messages, this is how they are often received. Those with mental illnesses are made to feel less of themselves and then do what is only natural: They close themselves off and suffer in quiet darkness.
Don’t be discouraged or think this is a scathing review of yet another failing of the modern church. I point out what is wrong because I firmly believe it is within our power to fix.
“Sometimes, one of the biggest things you can do for someone who has depression, anxiety, that litany of other disorders, is just be present, just be around,” Robe said. “I can remember a lot of times where it really was just, I didn’t so much want a solution, as I just wanted someone around.”
We want so badly to fix things, to make things right, we forget that it’s ultimately in God’s hands. Perhaps we will be that life-changing influence, but we need to be there first. A listening ear can be a lot more powerful than a problem-solving mouth.
Mental illnesses are incredibly complex and difficult. No two cases, even of the same medical classification, are the same. The path to recovery can be quite long and usually is.
If you want to make a difference in the life of someone in your community who struggles with a mental disorder, invest in the person like you would any friend, and keep investing, especially when things get rough. Even if it seems like nothing is getting better, the unseen influence you may be having can be incredible.
Believe me, I’ve seen it happen (and continue to happen) personally in the lives of multiple people, including that of my close friend, Nathan Robe.