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For the longest time, the subject of mental health (specifically with regards to mental disorders) has been taboo in the Christian spaces. As a result, many church members have suffered in silence. The stigma around mental health challenges has incredibly harmful effects on people who suffer from them, especially when they exist in churches – which are spaces that are supposed to be rehabilitative. I know this from personal experience, as I have had my own struggles with anxiety disorder and depression. I’ve thankfully had the help and support from my loved ones, but have also had to deal with hurtful comments from miseducated church leaders and members. By God’s grace, over the past few years, there’s been a movement towards fighting mental health stigma in the church. More and more people are openly talking about their experiences, and more and more people are willing to listen.
Now that more of us are informed on the difficulties of living with a mental health challenge, the next step is to ask ourselves what practical steps we can take towards making churches more of a redemptive community for people who find themselves in this situation. With the following list of suggestions, I seek to help answer this question. These suggestions are not just for people who don’t face mental health issues to consider, but also for those who do. Knowing how to help ourselves doesn’t always translate to knowing how to help others in a similar predicament. This is especially the case because the experiences of people facing mental health challenges tend to differ, even in the case where people have the same diagnoses. The following list, however, has suggestions that could help most (if not all) people dealing with mental health conditions.This list is not exhaustive, nor is it in any particular order.
Come to an understanding that mental health issues are not reserved for people who are “spiritually weak”: A person’s mental health challenges are not always a reflection of their spirituality. Issues related to faith can be one of many triggers that lead to these challenges but is not the only one. I’ve had conversations with many Christians who have struggled or are struggling with mental health issues, and have found that a lack of faith, more often than not, isn’t one of their challenges. If anything, holding on to our faith in Jesus is the main reason many of us are still alive. We minimize the experiences of those struggling with mental health when we conclude that a lack of faith is the cause of their illness, without really knowing what’s going on. We ought to have a perspective that doesn’t shame people struggling with it. This leads me to my next point…
We need to educate ourselves: As Christians, we often come across as lacking compassion towards those struggling with mental health. We sometimes think that the scope of their problems is as shallow as our understanding of it. Most of the time, this occurs subconsciously. I believe that if more of us would go out of our way to learn about these issues, meeting people battling mental health conditions with compassion will become our default. Setting aside preconceived notions and listening to talks, people’s personal experiences, reading, and asking questions can take us a lot further than we are right now. I believe the lack of compassion a lot of Christians have shown when it comes to this topic has been a fruit of either a lack of education or miseducation on the matter.
Make the church an environment where the topic of mental health is not taboo: The church ought to look after humans as holistic beings. Our minds are a huge part of who we are as human beings. Therefore, the subject of mental health should be considered necessary and of importance. There should be a level of openness and acceptance fostered in the church space concerning mental health issues.
Stop carelessly and jokingly diagnosing ourselves and others: Saying things like, “I’m so OCD” just because you like to stay organized isn’t okay. Statements like this minimize the experience of those who actually have OCD. This also perpetuates stigmas and misconceptions, which do a lot more harm than we think. Other mental health disorders commonly used as punchlines are Bipolar and Schizophrenia. The same applies for these and others.
Have structured systems in place to help congregants and people within your surrounding area: This could be something as seemingly simple as researching and compiling a list of local Christian psychologists and psychiatrists or starting a fund to help subsidize people’s appointments with mental health professionals. If you have a clinical psychologist on your church roster, they can be approached to help start a support group for the church. To come up with other ideas, I’d suggest finding out what the challenges of people struggling with mental health are, look at the resources your church has access to, and come up with ways to help minimize those challenges where possible. Having a known resource that the church has available can help more people come forward with their struggles, knowing that they will get some kind of practical assistance.
Be supportive on a personal level: Structured support (as mentioned in point 5) is great, but there is also value in showing support and care outside of that. Knowing from my own experience and that of other people I’ve spoken to, one of the best medicine for mental health problems is a supportive community. Having a mental challenge is one of the loneliest experiences ever. Knowing that one is cared for and loved by the people around them goes a long way. Nothing major is required. Simple gestures of love and care really go further than you think.
Pray for and with those struggling with mental health: The battle with mental health challenges is greater than what those without it imagine it to be. I honestly believe that it is only through Christ that one can stay alive despite struggling or having struggled with it. I’ve had heavily depressive episodes where although I knew God still loves me and that I love Him, I just couldn’t find the strength to pray and believe that the intercessory prayer of my loved ones played a huge role in helping me get through those dark periods. I’m sure this is the case for many others as well. I say all this to say, people with mental health conditions really need the prayers of those they are in community with.
There’s certainly much more that could be added to this list; however, I’ll leave it at seven points. My goal is to start or further this conversation among Christians, not to come up with all the answers. It is through conversations with God, ourselves and others that we will do better in this area. May the Lord bless all your efforts to help His children.
Written By: Cwayita Madala
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies Southern Africa-Indian Ocean Echo Magazine.