“For people of faith who suffer with mental illness, church can feel like a ‘Jericho road.’ ”
In November 2013, Brock Harrison was going about his life as a new dad and speechwriter for the leader of a political party when it hit him. It presented innocuously enough as panic attacks. Sitting down at his computer brought sudden and paralyzing physiological discomfort. He had experienced the odd panic attack in the past, but they were periodic and easy to shake off. These were different. He was physically unable to work.
“Fortunately, I never experienced the desire to end my life,” Brock says. “I now believe it was Jesus, along with a grudging demonstration of faith in my darkest times, that kept me from reaching those lows.
“I’m thankful to my pastor for his willingness to talk about mental illness candidly from the platform and for encouraging me to share my story.”
Compassion for cancer patients or for people injured in an accident comes naturally. It’s easy to care because we see the visible evidence. Mental illness is invisible. Its victims are often misunderstood, marginalized and isolated—especially if they are Christians. For people of faith who suffer with mental illness, church can feel like a “Jericho road.”
Jesus told the story of a man travelling from Jerusalem to Jericho. The man fell victim to thieves and was beaten and robbed. Three different travellers came upon the victim: first a priest, then a Levite, and finally a Samaritan. The Samaritan stands out in the story because the other players stood back. The first two saw the man’s need but kept their distance, curious but uninvolved. The Samaritan saw the man’s need, sympathized with his pain, seized the moment, and spent whatever it took to care. “Go and do likewise,” Jesus said.
Mental illness is a thief that robs and strips people of their dignity and hope. The trauma of depression, chronic anxiety, mood disorders, OCD, PTSD, postpartum depression, and other forms of mental illness can leave sufferers in a desperate state—like the man on the Jericho road.
Mental illness is a highly misunderstood and misdiagnosed illness within the Christian community. Many Christians who struggle with anxiety and panic are falsely led to believe it is merely a spiritual battle and are subjected to humiliating “prayers for deliverance.” Others are led to believe that the illness is their fault due to sin or because their faith isn’t strong enough to heal them. But the majority of people I have counselled who contend with severe anxiety have an incredibly dependent and intimate personal relationship with Jesus.
Two decades ago, Brenda, a nurse by profession, suffered from depression. She was actively involved in a large PAOC church. “I sang in the choir. I went to Bible study. But I never felt I could share with anyone,” she told me years later. “Depression is like leprosy. No one talks about it. It is ignored—especially in church circles—and the people who are in depression feel even more isolated. Often, I would try to make comments about people with depression in order to sound out some of our friends, but the remarks I received in return were about people who ‘couldn’t cope’ or who ‘should pray more,’ so it underscored my feeling that I was inadequate. I felt even more alone and lost.
“The only person I felt I could talk to was a lady who had also experienced severe depression after the death of her brother. She was quite open about it and made me feel acceptable. Finally I went to a doctor.”
People experiencing mental illness should not need to hide. They should not be made to feel unloved or unspiritual. They need to be loved and assured of God’s love for them. We need to remember that we are not here on earth to see through one another, but to see one another through.
Mental illness does not make people weak, cowardly, faithless, hopeless or joyless. Mental illness means you’re experiencing sickness and are in need of healing. Sick people use medicine, therapy, support, physical exercise, faith and prayer to become well again. There is healing for mental illness. There is hope.
How can the church become a safe place for those suffering with mental illness? It begins by offering care for the whole person, supporting them through prayer, medication and exercise. Consider providing a support group facilitated by a Christian mental health professional who can teach therapeutic strategies for dealing with mental illness. Refer people to professional Christian counsellors or arrange for an onsite counsellor several times a week. Provide access to helpful resources such as Sarah Ball’s book, Fearless in 21 Days: A Survivor’s Guide to Overcoming Anxiety. Sarah courageously pulls back the curtains on her very private battle with mental illness. She shares 21 revelations that led to her healing. (Follow her writing at saraheball.com.)
Peer-to-peer support is also important. Brock Harrison says, “I just want to help Christians who struggle with mental illness. The wisdom God imparts to us is critical to recovery, but I also believe the first step is to share with one another.”
Churches need to become dispensers of hope and healing for those who suffer with mental illness. For too long we have kept our distance and passed them by. It’s time to become Good Samaritans.
Rev. Bob Jones is senior pastor at North Pointe Community Church in Edmonton, Alta. You can read his blog at http://blog.northpointechurch.ca.
photo © istockphoto.com. This article appeared in the July/August 2018 issue of testimony, the bimonthly publication of The Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada.