Dear Church, Please Quit Stigmatizing Mental Illness!

by: Cris Corzine-McCloskey, LCSW

I am on a mission to talk about things the Church considers taboo. Today’s topic is mental illness. The term conjures up visions of straight jackets and asylums. Many Christians think it is caused by anything from a lack of faith or hidden sin to demonic possession. These beliefs are killing people because where there is a stigma, there is a reluctance to get help.

First, I want to demystify the term “mental illness.” The brain is an organ. Like other organs, it needs optimum conditions to thrive. Just as too much sugar can lead to diabetes, too much stress and other adverse conditions can cause the brain to suffer. While psychotic disorders get the press, they are the rarity. The most frequent forms of mental illness are depression and anxiety.

Let’s take your average believer, Joe Smith, and expose Joe to prolonged, extreme stress. If Joe’s blood pressure went up his church family would insist he see a doctor. If medication were needed, there would be relief that his condition was under control. No one would tell Joe he has a problem with his faith, question hidden sin, or suggest deliverance prayer. If Joe had a stroke, he would have the full support of his church body. His family would have casseroles brought by and prayer support.

Let’s take the same scenario; only instead of it affecting Joe’s blood pressure, it triggered a major depression. Initially, he would get support and scriptures to stand on. “The joy of the Lord is my strength.” However, depression causes problems with concentration and motivation, so his usual faith go to’s don’t work. Joe feels condemned by that and begins to question his faith. As his condition continues, the questions start. “Joe, is there anything you need to confess?” That results in more shame. If Joe goes to the doctor and gets medication for his depression, it is perceived as a crutch.

That leaves Joe depressed, ashamed, and without understanding support. His view of life has changed, because he has depression goggles on, which causes hopelessness and an inability to see a better future. His family is frustrated with him, and don’t understand why he can’t just ‘snap out of it,’ which furthers his desperation. Under these conditions, suicide starts feeling like an option. There aren’t many casseroles and prayers coming to Depression Joe. Now, make Joe a church leader. That makes the problem exponentially worse because he’s supposed to have the answers. He can’t let people know he’s suffering. He begins to wear a perma-smile, while inside he feels like dying.

Joe begins hiding behind his faux smile, aka “the mask,” and trying to fake it till he makes it. The charade is draining, which increases his stress. More stress fuels the depression. He now has a self-feeding cycle of shame, hopelessness, and stress from hiding his illness.

Well-meaning people try to cheer him up. But you cannot cheer someone out of mental illness. It’s like giving Joe a band-aid when he’s got an internal bleed. Their results fail, and his friends get frustrated. Joe knows people are tired of his condition and want him to “pull himself up by his bootstraps.” That causes him to isolate. Joe is in serious trouble.

This is not hyperbole. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) reports “Approximately 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. experience mental illness in a year. Approximately 1 in 25 experiences a serious mental illness that substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities.”.

That means in your average small group of 10 people, 2 of your friends are battling mental illness. In a congregation of 100, 4 of the members have a severe mental illness. They are possibly considering suicide. If only you could see past their mask…”Everybody say Praise the Lord and shake someone’s hand.” Joe, who just shook your hand, is pondering how he would take his life if he had the nerve.

I see this every day. I am blessed and privileged to see Joe without his mask. He comes and tells me about his shame and hopelessness. I listen and pray for him. He knows he’s not judged and leaves feeling a little lighter. As I earn his trust, we begin talking about the hard stuff. Joe may even talk about his faltering faith, hidden sin, and spiritual oppression.

See Church, it’s not that your views are always wrong. They are uneducated and incomplete. The triggers of mental illness can be stress, genetics, trauma, unresolved grief, chronic pain, or hormonal changes, just to name a few. Sometimes it is spiritual; sometimes it’s physical or situational. Medication may be needed to lift the symptoms enough to administer spiritual truth. People who use medication are not weak; they are determined to survive what is trying to kill them.

While the causes may be legion, the commonality is that it is always a soul-sucking, life-robbing illness that can be fatal if left untreated. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S., and people won’t get help if they feel ashamed. There is a mandate laid out in Galatians 6:2, “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” What’s the law of Christ? That we love one another. Not judge, not fix, love.

Church, its time to eradicate fear and ignorance and be authentic and relevant. Just like sexual assault survivors found solidarity in the Me Too movement, people need a safe way to come forward. Everyone can stand together and say, “I’m Joe,” and feel amazed at how many are standing with them. If the Church were to make people feel safe, it could probably put me out of business. That’s okay. I’m sure Jesus would find something for me to do.

Okay, Joe, I’ve laid the groundwork by opening the dialogue, the next step is up to you. Drop your mask and be honest about your condition. Call me, call a friend, call someone. If you are feeling suicidal, the people at the Suicide Hotline, 1-800-273-8255, are always there to listen. Pick up the phone Joe. It is time to stop suffering in silence!