Getting a handle on Mental Health

Mental health has been in the news recently, not only due to the large numbers of people who have struggled in during lockdowns and isolation, but also because of several high-profile athletes who have opened up about their struggles with mental illness.  According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), roughly 20% of the population in the United States (52.9 million people) experienced some mental illness in 2020.    Also in the same year, approximately 5.5% of the population experienced a severe mental illness (14.2 million people, or 1 in 20 adults). About half of those individuals sought treatment of some kind.

As followers of Jesus, how do we support one another in these kinds of struggles? We sing and affirm that Jesus is the “Hope of the World”, yet in our everyday lives, some of us may be struggling to put one foot in front of the other.  God may seem small, and our struggles appear overwhelming.    

I’ve shared before about my struggles with anxiety, which left unchecked can lead to depression.  So first I want to say to people struggling (mildly or severely) with these conditions: You are not alone; there is hope, and you can get better. Let’s start with the basics. The most common symptoms of depression are:

  • loss of interest in normal or enjoyable activities,
  • sleeping too much or becoming lethargic,
  • restlessness or loss of normal sleep
  • over eating or not eating enough,
  • feelings of hopelessness, dread, sadness, failure, self-loathing, or pessimism
  • frequent thoughts of self-harm or suicide
  • unusual irritability or anger compared to one’s normal temperament

Sadly, in Christian circles I have observed two common misconceptions surrounding mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression:

Misconception #1- “At its core, depression or anxiety is a faith issue.  A strong Christian shouldn’t be depressed.”

The reason this misconception exists is because anxiety and depression are, at first, unseen. They are internal, associated with the mind, our thought life, and our overall sense of motivation, pleasure, and wellbeing. These aspects overlap, to a certain degree, with our faith in God and our walk with Christ.

When someone expresses feeling anxious, sad, or depressed, some “safe” and common answers given by fellow Christians are things such as, “I’m sorry, how can I pray for you?” or “God loves you. Rejoice in the Lord; things will improve.” or even, “Go to God in prayer, serve others, and you will feel better.” How do we put these kinds of responses into context? 

First, some people will never fully understand what it is like to be clinically or severely depressed, so this answer could be spoken with good intentions, despite a lack of awareness.  Secondly, the above response is true, in a certain sense. A person’s spiritual position in Christ is secure, no matter what life situation he or she encounters. We are called to give thanks to God in all circumstances.  As we pray to Him and listen, our feelings and thoughts should reflect His love, assurance, and peace of the Holy Spirit (John 14:27).  And yet, our feelings and thoughts don’t always respond to God’s promises. It is helpful to realize that many people in the Bible suffered from depression- David, Elijah, Job, and others.  Christians throughout history have suffered from depression-even debilitating depression-such William Cowper, for example.  If Christians were the only people who ever suffered from anxiety and depression, then we could conclude the problem is exclusively a lack of faith or another spiritual defect. But people all over the world, of all ethnicities, from all backgrounds- rich and poor, young and old, male and female- struggle with these conditions. While strengthened faith may be one component of the answer, it certainly is not the only component.

Misconception #2- “Christians should not seek psychological, psychiatric, or medical help for these conditions.”

Some people who have this personal conviction sometimes state it as a rule which every Christian should follow, which is unfortunate.  Granted, in the social sciences and medical fields, many assumptions related to human nature, evolutionary theory, behavioral conditioning, and Freudian psychology are clearly contrary to scripture.  I can understand why Christians would be hesitant to utilize certain secular means. But seeking help from non-Christian sources is not necessarily harmful to one’s faith in all cases. Don’t get me wrong, I think any mental illness has a spiritual component.  Our bodies-including our brains- are broken and corrupted by humanity’s fall into sin. We are also responsible to God for our thought patterns and our daily choices.  Therefore, symptoms of mental illness should not be addressed only from a physical, psychiatric, or behavioral viewpoint.  Medication may help a person function better, but medication does not compel a person to trust God and walk in humble dependence on Him.  God calls each of us to walk by faith daily. 

Therefore, in my view, to what degree a person seeks psychological, psychiatric, or medical help for mental illness is a personal issue, according to their conscience and their faith.  We are commanded not to judge one another on such secondary matters. (Romans 14:4)

Here are several things that helped me most during times of anxiety and depression:

1. View your schedule as your friend- Keeping a consistent schedule helps establish healthy rhythms of work, activity, and sleep.  Instead of viewing the schedule as a “burden”, retrain yourself to look at it as a daily help.  Anxiety and depression can develop when people have more unoccupied time with their own thoughts.

2. Exercise regularly- If you feel depressed, it is tough to get started exercising. Try to find one activity you can do to increase your heart rate and get endorphins flowing.  Walking briskly outside for 20 minutes is a good start.  Set small goals and work towards them.  Exercise helps refresh our minds as well as our bodies.  After pushing me through a rigorous workout, one friend joked with me, “You’re certainly not thinking about all your problems now, are you?!”  Physical exercise has a way of clearing our body’s systems so that we can re-engage life with a more positive mindset.

3.  Find the right person to talk to (or two).  This may be a counselor, psychologist, pastor, friend, or perhaps a coworker who has had similar struggles. In my experience, it is harder for immediate family to fulfill this role.  You don’t need to share the same level of detail with every person, but finding the right person you can bear your soul to is a key to moving forward.  Asking one or two individuals to pray for you and check in regularly is a good way to stay connected.

4.  Consider talking to a doctor about medication, supplements, or other treatments.  Some people have seasonal depression, and only need medication at certain times.  Some suffer acute depression due to a crisis or trial in their lives.  If depression or anxiety rises to the level of interrupting your daily life for more than 2 or 3 weeks, you should make an appointment to see a doctor or mental health professional.

5. Continue seeking God, even though you may be struggling. Satan will use any weakness- physical, emotional, relational, or mental- to discourage and distract Christians.  John Piper has written the book, “When I Don’t Desire God”, in order to help Christians fight for joy in difficult times.  A beneficial book I have used is entitled, “Praying the Psalms in times of Depression”.  Admit your struggles to God- even say them out loud- and know that He understands you. He is the only one who will never reject you.  Psalm 13 is the prayer of someone who is depressed, yet yearns to trust God moment by moment.  Remind yourself that Jesus will never leave you- Hebrews 13:5, John 6:37.

6. Find something life giving that refreshes your spirit.  Mark Buchanan, in his book “The Rest of God” describes how he took a day to go hiking with friends.  They found a secluded river surrounded by rock formations and waterfalls.  They spent a few hours jumping from various heights into the frothing, mountain water.  He felt alive again, and it strengthened his soul, even though he wasn’t doing anything utilitarian.  He wrote, “There are many things—eating ice cream, diving off cliffs, learning birdcalls, that can’t be shoehorned into a utilitarian scheme, try as you might…They add nothing to the gross national product…But they might just make us feel more alive, more ourselves, and that is use enough.” (pg. 139)

7. Do your best not to withdraw from people, rather seek to give yourself.  Depression and anxiety are both conditions where people get “tunnel vision”, seeing only their problems and nothing else.  Even when you feel weak, God still equips you to serve others.  Even when you feel afraid, God has other people who will be blessed by your presence.  Even when you think you have nothing to offer, there are people who need your encouragement.  Don’t put pressure on yourself, but realize in the midst of struggles you still have something to give to other people.  Serving others often leads to a better disposition as well.

8.  Tell the Devil to take a hike!  Hundreds of thoughts come to our minds daily.  The Devil can afflict us and launch flaming arrows at us.  Satan wants us to conclude that his accusations are a true indication of reality, when in fact they are not.  Worry or anxiety can certainly be a sin when we continue to focus on certain negative thoughts, and we refuse to trust God and move forward.  The Devil has been a liar since the beginning.  Our responsibility is to take up the shield of faith and use the word of God to fight back (Ephesians 6:12-18).  Cognitive Behavioral Therapy focuses on helping people learn how to “reframe” reality in their minds, so that they can move forward with positive behavioral steps.  The scripture tells us to do the same thing, in the context of faith: “take every thought captive to obey Christ.” (2 Corinthians 10:5)

Let’s learn how to discern some of these struggles in one another’s lives and learn how to respond with grace and truth.  Let’s seek to be a church family where these issues are not kept silent, but can be talked about in the appropriate setting and context.  Let’s seek to be a healing, redemptive community, where we are not ashamed, self-righteous, fearful, or indignant over any one individual’s particular struggle, including our own.  There is something Christ-like about showing one another the following attitude through our actions and words: “No matter how bad things are, I will not walk away from you.”

In Christ, Pastor Jim