Mental illness has been a highly controversial topic in the Christian community for quite some time. When I was attending Seminary for my Master’s in Marriage and Family Counseling, there was a continuous debate between the school of theology and the school of education about mental health and what we should believe. When attending, I was often caught in conversations about mental illness and was led to consider by many that mental illness was solely a spiritual issue and that there was no need for any outside help or thought. I fought this belief for years and searched for my own personal understanding of it. Recently, the topic of mental health has been re-evaluated by Christians and churches and considered more than just a spiritual issue, but a holistic one—as a disease that requires compassion, education, acknowledgment, and (many times) needs professional help.
I will begin by sharing my story. I lost my husband to suicide in January of 2019, primarily due to mental illness. He struggled with clinical depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder. These issues were untreated and undiagnosed for a long time. It was hidden from others (especially the church) for years. As a pastor and believer, this was not something that he (or I) talked about openly. So, this topic will remain heavy on my heart and on the hearts of his family and friends for a lifetime. That is why I have a personal interest and investment in addressing this issue. In writing this article, my hope is to speak to the importance of mental health and recognizing pastoral burnout and mental illness from the point of view of a Christian, a Licensed Counselor, a Pastor’s kid, and a former pastor’s wife. The church now has turned its focus on the mentally hurting. The loss of several pastors to suicide has brought attention to the need for addressing the struggles that pastors and church leaders are facing. Mental illness is not a new thing. It has been around for a long time. Yet, our awareness of it has continued to develop. Moreover, the problems and heartaches that come from it seem to be at an all-time high in our society today. I am heartbroken to see that mental illness and suicide are so prevalent, especially among our church leaders and our church congregants. I am thankful, however, that this is now being talked about more openly and recognized in Christian circles. This is why Care for Pastors continues to share and talk boldly about this issue that many suffer from daily.
Our Beliefs About Mental Health Are Important
Before we can help change the stigma of mental illness within the church, we must first know why we believe what we believe. As mentioned above, mental illness is something that has been viewed as a spiritual issue and therefore went unnoticed and overlooked—brushing it off and leaving too many pastors and Christians to struggle in silence and isolation. At Care for Pastors, one of our goals is to create a safe place for pastors and their families to find hope and healing. We strive to educate people and assist them in helping themselves as well as others who struggle with mental illness. As Christians, we know that we live in a sinful and fractured world. So often we feel the effects of it. One of the first acclimations we usually hear when working with pastors is “I am a pastor; I shouldn’t be struggling with this.” The conversation usually is continued by the idea that pastors are to have the joy of the Lord and not fight mental or emotional struggles. And, if they do, they need to “get right with the Lord.” In all the hardships we encounter as believers, we know that faith is the foundation of who we are and how we handle suffering. Yet, many times we can’t control what happens to us. It is common to see cancer, Alzheimer’s, or diabetes as the usual diseases that are taking the lives of those we love; but we do not recognize the impact that mental illness has on those we love as well. Mental illness is a disease. It is something that countless people battle every day. Some have a chronic mental illness that could stay with them for a lifetime and some may have situational. Either way, once we recognize this, we can better help understand those who are suffering. If you personally struggle with depression, anxiety, or another type of mental disorder, you can take a deep breath and know that there is help out there for you. It starts with you accepting that it’s okay not to have it all together and it’s okay to get outside professional help.
What the Church Can do
Dr. Henry Cloud (Clinical psychologist and author) recently released a curriculum that helps churches create healthy environments for their staff and congregants. In creating this, the first thing he writes is, “The growth process must include the body of Christ.” The church should be the starting point for healing, not the hiding place from it. As pastors and church leaders we teach this daily, but do we exercise it? Often times we believe it for others, but do not practice it ourselves? I watched my husband preach and teach about finding peace, I watched him counsel individuals and families who experienced depression and suicide. I saw as he battled it within the walls of our home and went out and acted like it didn’t exist. I observed it slowly kill him, all while ministering to others with great passion and ease. Yet, inside he was dying. He thought that if he worked harder, prayed more, spent more time with the Lord, and worked on it in isolation, he could fix the problem. Although these were good goals he aspired to, he (we) didn’t understand the importance of admitting it, talking about it, taking advantage of all the outside resources, and practicing what we preached. This led to and opened up other secret problems that originated from his inner struggles. I understand this can be difficult to hear, but maybe it will be something that will save your life, your family, and create a culture of compassion within your church. When asked what churches can do differently to assist those who live with mental illness, I urge pastors and church leaders to partner with Christian mental Health Professionals. If a church has its own resources, I encourage them to create a ministry within their own church. According to Barna Group, in 2018-2019, studies showed that 23% of pastors dealt with mental illness, and knew at least 75% dealing with mental illness within their church. When we see this as a need, we are more likely to do something about it. These are just a few ideas to consider.
Before I started writing this, I prayed and asked God to give me the words to say and communicate to those who are reading this and who are hurting so deeply from the daily battle of depression, anxiety, and other mental illness. The Lord so clearly laid this on my heart— “Make an impact, not an impression.” If you don’t read anything else, please read this:
- You are not alone
We have seen that pastors are being more open about their struggle with mental illness. Please do not wait to be a statistic and be a leader who leads by example. A pastor recently said this in an open Facebook post, “People are deeply craving realness, rawness, authenticity, brutal honesty, and a willingness to acknowledge the darker side of the human struggle. They long to hear how God’s love and grace touch us in those places where we most acutely feel our leprosy. Preachers who rarely talk about their struggles will produce churches filled with people who rarely talk about their struggles.” Create a community and share your story with someone. You will find that you are not alone.
- Get help if you need it
I have provided a list of resources to utilize if you think you may be battling depression, anxiety, or mental illness. These can also be used if you need help or support for other reasons as well.
- Create a culture of compassion within your church and community that promotes a healthy understanding of mental illness.
Change may need to start with you asking yourself if you need help. It may start with the understanding that mental illness is a rising epidemic in our churches. Wherever it starts, our prayer is that you now see the necessity that it be addressed and begin to pave the way for change.
- Care for Pastors: https://www.careforpastors.org
- Pastors Hope Network: https://pastorshopenetwork.org
- American Association of Christian Counselors: https://connect.aacc.net/?search_type=distance
- Focus on the Family: https://www.focusonthefamily.com/get-help/counseling-services-and-referrals
- Emotionally Healthy Spirituality by Peter Scazzero
- Suicide Hotline: If you are considering suicide, please contact the number below. Your life is important! https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org