We live in a society that stigmatizes mental health so much that it denies depression, but mourns suicide~ Anonymous
I came across this statement sometime back and it is just sad how true it is. Just recently when looking at the statistics on the suicide cases globally and in our country I wondered if our ignorance concerning mental illness especially in our local churches has contributed to the stigma.
Truth be told, most of these suicide cases caused by underlying mental illnesses like depression and anxiety disorders are not usually sudden. The victims live with these mental illness for a long time until it overwhelms their capacity to cope. So the question is, how do we as the church and as individuals participate in breaking the stigma and preventing the mental illness cases from turning into suicide cases?
What is mental health?
WHO defines health as the state of complete physical, mental and social well-being, which is marked not only by the absence of disease or infirmity. That said, there is no health without mental health.
Simply stated mental illnesses are diseases of the mind. One can be sick in their mind as with other organs like the heart or kidney. Scientific investigations of the human brain have shown that mental illness is associated with changes in the brain’s structure, chemistry and function. There is also proof that these illnesses have a biological basis. This information is important because most of us have probably dismissed a mental illness as just being “sad or blue”. I am not in any way stating that all sadness is as a result of a mental illness.
A more comprehensive definition of mental illness is a health condition that changes a person’s thinking, feelings or behavior (or all three) and that causes the person distress and difficulty in functioning. We know that man is a spirit being who has a soul and resides in a body. Our mind sits on the soul. The mind is to the soul what the brain is to the body. The mind is the faculty of human reasoning and thoughts. It is responsible for processing feelings/ emotions. Our thoughts inform our emotions which in turn inform our actions and behaviors. When one suffers from a mental illness their thought processes are affected and this may reflect in their behavior.
It is important to note that individuals with mental illnesses do not necessarily look like they are sick especially if it is mild. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of mental disorders (DSM 5) lists approximately 297 disorders.
Charles Spurgeon explained it this way; the mind can descend far lower than the body, for in it there are bottomless pits. The flesh can bear only a certain number of wounds and no more but the soul can bleed in ten thousand ways and die over and over again each hour.
I don’t know what’s more worrying; the increasing prevalence of mental illnesses or the silence and stigma around these illnesses.
According to WHO, 1 in 4 people worldwide will experience mental health issues. The National Institute of Mental Health states that 1 in 5 American adults lives with a mental illness.
The Kenya Mental Health Policy 2015-2030 launched recently states that 1 in every 4 Kenyans suffers from mental ill health in their lifetime. This translates to 12 million Kenyans who will need medical attention. Kenya has 88 consultant psychiatrists and about 500 psychiatric nurses serving a population of over 45 million people. (PDO Kenya.)
Studies and surveys have shown that Generation Z and millennials are more anxious and depressed than all the previous generations. In one survey, a half of millennials those between 24-39 years said that they left a job at least partly because of mental health reasons. More than 9 in 10 (91 %) said that they have experienced at least one physical or emotional symptoms because of stress. Only half of all Gen Zs feel like they do enough to manage their stress. (American Psychological Association). This is of course due to many reasons including the fact that this generation is more conscious of mental health issues and can articulate them better than the previous generations.
Even more worrying are the statistics on the suicide cases among teenagers. According to suicide.org;
- Every 100 minutes a teen takes their own life
- Suicide is the 3rd leading cause of death in young people aged 15-24 years
- About 20% of all teens experience depression before they reach adulthood
- Only 30% of depressed teens are being treated for it
A story that caught my attention was the death of Pastor Andrew Stoecklein who committed suicide in 2018. An article by his wife Kayla Stoecklein (https://www.christianitytoday.com/pastors/2020/september-web-exclusives/pastor-suicide-wife-stoecklein-mental-health-church.html) and many other incidents of leaders and church members struggling with mental illnesses show us why the church needs to stop shying away from having conversations around mental health.
Mental illness does not discriminate. Nobody is really immune when it comes to mental health issues. It can affect anyone regardless of age, gender, geography, income, social status, race/ethnicity, religion/spirituality, background etc. With these understanding we will be more empathetic towards the people around us who are suffering from these conditions.
Where are we as a Christian community in terms of mental health care?
The truth is mental illness can be highly stigmatized in the church. Christians tend to take care of their spirits with little or no focus on the mind. We tend to forget that the mind is the door to the spirit. Your life and health are actually more important than your ministry. You will be in a better position to serve God and the people when you are healthy physically, socially and even mentally.
The dead don’t thank you,
and choirs don’t sing praises from the morgue.
Those buried six feet under
don’t witness to your faithful ways.
It’s the living—live men, live women—who thank you,
just as I’m doing right now. Isaiah 38: 18-19 (MSG)
Studies have shown that the clergy are often the first point of contact when someone is going through stress, grief and depression. Pastors and church leaders are the first to be approached when there is a mental health or family crisis. Think about it, where do you seek help first when faced with stress or when you are overwhelmed by situations that you seem to have no control over?
John Peteet an associate professor of psychiatry in Harvard Medical School made this observation;
60% of the oncology patients in psychiatric consultation at his institution were also known to a chaplain but there was no communication between the two disciplines. Lack of communication and collaboration between the clergy and mental health professionals does more harm to a community. A community which views spiritual and psychiatric interventions as competing alternatives can discourage much needed therapy and medication.
I believe that the body of Christ is better equipped to deal with these mental illnesses. The body of Christ should be a place of refuge for those who are suffering. We should accept the people with mental health issues just as we accept the people with physical disabilities in our congregations.
Because of the way we have ignored mental illness we are hurting people. We have sent the message that there is something wrong with you if you are a Christian with mental illness. The truth is there is something wrong with you. You are ill and you need help. And the church can be part of that healing process.Dr. Ed Stetzer (Life Way Research on Mental Health)
Why are we afraid to talk about mental illness in our Christian circles?
This could be for many reasons but I will just highlight a few of them.
- We don’t know what mental health problems are, how to recognize the symptoms and how to help those that are affected.
Could it be we are quiet because we don’t know how much impact we could have if we showed up into this fight? The church can’t be quiet about mental illness anymore. The doctor to patient ratio when it comes to mental health clearly shows that there is a huge gap. Globally less than 50% of those who need mental health treatment receive it. We need to raise mental health champions amongst ourselves.
- Most of us are not fully convinced that mental illness is a disease just like diabetes or any other physical condition.
Most mentally ill patients who are also Christians might feel frustrated when they don’t feel better after they pray. They don’t understand why they can’t seem to control their emotions and thoughts even after appearing in every altar call. Think about it this way. A Christian with a heart condition caused by obesity will get healed after you pray for them because prayer works but that will not be enough. If they continue living a sedentary lifestyle and don’t seek help from a nutritionist on how to manage their weight they will come back with the same condition or even worse after sometime. It is the same with mental health. Even as you pray for them it is important to signpost them to a professional who is equipped to help them sustain that healing.
- Psychiatrists are less religious than physicians in other specialists and the general public.
Most of them view religion as being judgmental and monolithic and unfortunately our silence and inaction is proving them right. As a result Christians are also not able to trust these professionals and their therapies. As I had stated earlier Christian communities and the clergy are on the frontline when it comes to battling mental illnesses. However the sad reality is that we don’t have enough information and skills to fight mental illness and we are also not very willing to collaborate with the mental health professions. This is a relationship that needs to be mended.
- We often attribute mental illness to sin.
This, I believe, is one of the main reasons why mental health stigma still persists not just in the community but also in the church. People in the church suffer quietly because they are afraid that admitting that they are experiencing depressive, anxiety or bipolar symptoms might mean that they have backslidden, are living in sin, have weak faith or that they don’t pray hard enough. This is not fair at all because it sends the message that the mental illness is the patient’s fault.
Sometimes sin could be the cause but this is not always the case. If it is true for physical illnesses, it is also true for mental illnesses. Fortunately if sin is the cause then the cure is simple –repentance. Not every patient with a mental illness is possessed by a demon. We should be very careful not to use this attitude to discriminate against mentally ill patients because stigma thrives when there is discrimination. Discrimination creates shame and secrecy and these are the fertilizers of depression’s darkness.
So what’s your reason? Why have you been quiet about this subject?
What can the church do?
I believe that the church is in a better position than any other institution to deal with mental illness. If we live up to this then we’ll see a fall in the suicide and violence cases. We can’t afford to stay silent and uninvolved. We can achieve a lot even without additional budgets and staff.
- Break the silence
The Bible is not afraid of talking about mental and emotional anguish, why is it that we are afraid? We need to talk about these issues in a way that is acceptable and easy to understand in our congregational setting. According to Dr. Ed Sermons stop stigma.
A research done in 2014 showed that nearly two-thirds of religiously observant protestant Christians with depression reported wanting their churches to speak openly about mental illness.
- Reach out
These illnesses thrive in exclusion and isolation. I have seen instances where families with a schizophrenic member or relative keep to themselves. They prefer to take care of the patient alone and sometimes even the neighbors are not aware. This is what happens with stigmatized conditions. People tend to think that they are better off alone and away from the rest of the community. Some do not want to burden anyone with their sickness. Others are ashamed and don’t want to be the topic of discussion after they have left. This is why as the body of Christ we should let them know that the fellowship of brethren is the safest place for them to be. We should reach out and extend Christ’s love to these patients and their families.
- Bear one another’s burdens
Galatians 6:2, KJV: “Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ.”
Every Christian should be encouraged to offer practical help to those suffering.
- Collaboration with mental health professionals
We should build a network of trustworthy mental health professionals around our communities. Sometimes people we know and fellowship with may experience trauma that is too much for them to heal from by themselves and might need more help than we can offer. As a church we should have a referral list and information about the mental health services in our community. This gives people in our congregations the confidence to seek for help when they need it and to do so early enough.
There is so much more that the church can do to win this battle against mental illnesses. Mental illness is treatable and this is why we shouldn’t be quiet about it. In the next series we will look into some of the most common mental illnesses and available treatments.
Feel free to reach out to me if you have any questions or need any help.
Author: Fridah .W. Wachira, 5th Year medical student (MBChB) at Kenyatta University, Kenya and a medical blogger. Contact; Facebook: Dr Wachira Fridah, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, You Tube channel: Convo with Dr. Fridah and James Wetu.