4 Ways We Can Make The Church A Safe Space For People With Mental Illness

Many of us are aware that mental illness can be a silent struggle. But for those who have had no exposure to depression or anxiety this can be very easy to miss, or misunderstand.

God willing, our churches are flourishing communities that are filled with people of all kinds. But for those of us struggling with depression and anxiety, this can be far from easy. What if I panic in front of others? What if I cry? What if nobody talks to me? What if too many people talk to me?

While it’s not fair to expect those who have never lived with mental illness to completely ‘get it’, here are four ways that churches can begin to make space for those who live with mental health issues:

1. Listen

Churches need to be slow to speak and quick to listen. The book of Proverbs reminds us of such wisdom. When we see a brother or sister’s behaviour, attendance or willingness to serve change over time, it’s easy to jump to conclusions and pass judgment. The simple act of asking ‘how is everything going?’ can go a long way. Granted, they may not want to tell you, but that’s their choice. In asking and listening, you’ve got nothing to lose and a lot to gain.

2. Love

I can’t stress this enough. Love is what defines the church. Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians that when a gift is exercised in love, the body functions well.

In my own journey, I’ve received the blessing of professional help. Psychologists and psychiatrists have played an important part in my recovery. However, something I have learned is that ultimately these professionals are there to treat you. They can’t be expected to love you as friend, brother or sister.

Enter God’s Church.

To make churches a safe space we need to remember two things. Firstly, that we aren’t there to treat people as professionals. But secondly, we can bring something truly distinctive to the table—loving people well. What does that look like? 1 Corinthians 13 is a great place to start.

3. Speak

Yes, I did just say that we need to be quick to listen and slow to speak, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t speak at all.

We have God’s Word, which means we don’t have to fumble about with self-constructed wisdom when sharing community with somebody living with mental illness.

The gospel reminds us that God is powerfully for us and not against us. He didn’t even spare his own Son in pursuit of us. For those of us struggling to love ourselves, this is a significant truth to grasp hold of.

Don’t be hasty in offering quick one liners such as ‘God works the good of those who love him’ without first asking what Paul means by ‘good’. But we would be wise to still remember that God does act, and he loves, and he cares.

For those of us who live with depression and anxiety, life can feel like it's on shaky ground. But a reminder of the unchanging character of God gives a security that can’t be found anywhere else.

4. Patience

Finally, be patient. We have made great strides in mental health awareness. We know it’s out there and we’ve seen the statistics. Now it’s time to ask the question, ‘what do we do about it in our churches?’

We need to know that mental illness is a long term game. If you want to come into someone’s life, be prepared to be there in thick and thin. It’s a long and bumpy road.

When you offer your support be prepared to follow-up with them again. And again. Don’t give a person already feeling fragile and insecure another opportunity to reinforce what they’ve concluded about themselves - that they’re a nuisance, or unwanted. In contrast, somebody who can reflect God’s love in all seasons brings a powerful message of acceptance and grace that we so deeply need. Have boundaries, yes. But at the same time, be ready to commit for the long term.

The Collision of Anxiety and Faith


‘Does anyone know what rumination is?’

That was the question a facilitator asked during my stay in a psychiatric hospital a number of years ago. I’d never seen the word before, but somehow I instantly knew what it meant.

She continued.

‘Rumination is when you think you’re strategising your way out of a problem, only to find yourself spiralling into anxiety’.

That was it. That was me. I’d been ruminating. For a very long time. And I didn’t know it had a name.

Taking The Past Into The Future

One of my favourite moments in scripture is when Joseph is reunited with his brothers. It’s an epic culmination to a full life’s story. The highs of a father’s love and political power. The lows of enslavement, imprisonment and false accusation.

There must have been so many times when Joseph would have asked ‘God, what are you doing?’ So many problems to face. And so many opportunities to be crippled by the unknown.

Eventually Joseph is blessed with the same hindsight as we receive as the reader, where he tells his brothers:

Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children. And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them.
— Genesis 50:19-21

Joseph finds peace in realising what God has been doing all along. Joseph has not been in control of his life. God has. And that brings him peace, because he knows that God is good.

When I’m filled with anxiety, it’s based on future uncertainties. When I don’t know what’s going to happen, I instinctively strategise. Or at least I think I do.

I would be wise to adopt Joseph’s perspective.

What is it that God has been doing in my life? How, with the benefit of hindsight, have I seen his hand at work? And how will I carry that into the future?


Bringing The Cross Into The Present

Over my years in ministry, I have come across many theological reflections on the cross of Jesus Christ. Justification. Atonement. Propitiation.

These can all be helpful truths to explore, but I don’t believe we need to have a full grasp on them to get to the heart of what the cross means.

At its core, the cross reminds us that God is for us and not against us. Not just with words, but with actions. This is love most powerful. A love that would lead to death and a power that would end with resurrection.

When I fear the unknown in my life, I would be wise to remember the cross. And so when I ask myself the question ‘God, what on earth are you doing?’, I may not know the specific answer, but I can be sure of his heart.

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
— Philippians 4:6-7

God doesn’t guarantee me understanding of everything that will happen in my life. And that can be a source of great anxiety. I stress about what I can’t control and lose sleep over what I can’t change.

But as Paul so helpfully reminds us, with prayer and thanksgiving, we can find peace. Deep peace in the uncertainties. How? Because the same God we cry out to is the same God who did not even spare Jesus.

I have not mastered the art of an anxiety-free life. But very slowly, I am becoming more at peace with not being in control, because he has made his heart for me abundantly clear.

 

Here’s What it's Like Being a Church Leader and Depressed

Blameless.

A leader and lover in the home.

Self-controlled.

Disciplined.

Honest.

Hospitable.

One who holds firmly to the truth.

These are just some of the qualifications that the Bible holds out for leaders in the Church (Titus 2, 1 Timothy 3).

As a church leader, these qualifications can seem daunting. They set the bar high and I am grateful for the grace of God when I fall short of them.

After all, I too, am human.

Like every believer, I live with a tension of who I want to be and who I actually am. I press on in living more like Christ every day, but the core of the gospel reminds me that I can’t be perfected outside of his grace.

Scripture asks me to speak truth to the church. And if I’m being honest, I don’t have it all together.

I am a pastor who lives with depression.

And nowhere in scripture am I disqualified for it.

Quite the opposite.

As I weigh up my own church leadership experiences in the context of living with depression, I think it has actually been a net gain. Let me tell you why.

Dependence

Whether we recognise it or not, we’re dependent every single day on the grace of God. It’s God who gives us breath in our lungs. It’s God who keeps the Earth spinning on its axis. And it’s God who grows his Church.

As a pastor, I have had to preach the sovereignty of God to myself more than perhaps any other theological truth. His hand over creation is genuinely what helps me sleep at night. There are so many people in my parish with so many needs. There’s always more that could be done. There’s always the desire to see more come to Christ. And I need to recognise my limitations, knowing that I’m a steward but not a savior.

This kind of dependence can be a difficult thing to learn. But living with depression actually makes it a little easier. There have been times in my life where I haven’t known how or when I would be able to work, how to provide for my family. Even in the darkest times, how I was going to go on in life. And yet, looking back, I can see God’s provision in all of it. I’m still here. I’m still breathing. And I’m not just surviving—against the all the odds I’m actually thriving. And it’s only because of his grace that I can say that.

I believe this has made it easier to preach grace to myself, and to others as I lead under God. In living with personal frailty, I can leave room for healthy leadership frailty, because it is God’s strength that is greater. He’s the Savior, the great changer of hearts. Not me.

Empathy

There is also little doubt that my own struggles with depression have made me more empathetic. In Hebrews 4 we’re told that because Jesus became human, he is able to empathise with us in our time of need. When we feel pain, he doesn’t just intellectually comprehend the concept of pain. No, he knows exactly what it’s like.

When we live something, we understand like never before.

In pastoral ministry, you often occupy a privileged but delicate position of being with somebody at a crisis point. I certainly don’t get this right every time but I can say, without a doubt, that experiencing crisis myself has better equipped me to sit and to listen, to mourn and to feel. The chapters of each of our stories are different, but the shared experience of pain and heartache has enabled me to care in a deeper way than if I hadn’t first gone through hardship myself.

The ‘Go-To’ Guy

It isn’t all roses, though. Being a leader in the church and living with depression absolutely has its challenges.

You quickly find yourself being the ‘go to’ for people when they are in need or seeking guidance.

This is a great honor, but I can easily get sucked into a false identity that I am ‘that guy’—the one who people come to for help. Being needed can feed a weird addiction of power. And the problem (amongst others) is that it doesn’t leave room for your own times of need.

I’ll finish by telling you that today I write this article from my bedroom. For the first time in months, I have had to take a ‘mental health’ day. I’m not physically unwell, I just simply couldn’t face other people’s needs today. My two year old twins haven’t slept through the night for months. And I’m tired. I should have taken a day off before today, but I didn’t, because that would have acknowledged that I couldn’t be there for others in the way I wanted to be. And that was a threat to my false identity of ‘the needed one’. It’s a mental health day as much as it is a spiritual reminder that the world is not turning on my axis.

Like Life Itself

Being a pastor with depression is much like the rest of life in a fallen world. God has a way of bringing about great purposes as a result of it. But it’s a far from perfect life.

Pros and cons.

So there’s no need to treat me differently. My depression is just another reminder of our common experience. Life is a journey of different experiences and emotions, whether you live with depression or not.  So I take it one day at a time, and live in faith that God is never absent in his hand over creation.

When Christianity Meets Psychology

Should Christians be willing to receive counselling or psychological treatment from a non-Christian practitioner?

This is one of the questions posed in my upcoming book, Down Not Out.

I believe that all things being equal, a Christian person would ideally see a Christian counsellor - a person who shares their worldview and will speak from that position.

But of course, not all things are equal. One practitioner might charge too much money for the person to afford. Maybe you live in a rural area where you simply have to receive the support available.

Or, like me, as an inpatient in a psychiatric hospital, you simply don’t get to choose your medical support team.

And so, we need to cultivate discernment. I was once told by a non-Christian psychologist that I should completely cut out a person in my life who they deemed unhelpful to my mental health. As a Christian, I couldn’t reconcile this advice with the call to love a neighbour who was not exercising abusive behaviour.

But it’s hard to have discernment when we’re struggling to know up from down and day from night in the midst of depression and anxiety.

Enter the world of biblical counselling. In his book, Effective Biblical Counseling, Dr. Larry Crabb very helpfully asks the question, ‘Christianity and Psychology: Enemies or Allies’?

Dr. Crabb proposes three flawed models of how Christianity and Psychology ought not to interact:

Model 1: Separate But Equal

This model asserts that the Bible is to deal with solely spiritual matters and is not concerned with the physical. So, for matters of faith we go to the Bible and for matters of physical wellbeing we go to doctors/psychologists. In other words, the Bible has nothing to say on many aspects of life. But Dr. Crabb himself points out this flaw:

Psychological malfunctions usually consist of stem problems like guilt, anxiety, resentment…Even the most casual reading of Scripture quickly reveals that it has a great deal to say about these sorts of problems.
— Dr. Larry Crabb, Effective Biblical Counseling, p.34

Model 2: Tossed Salad

Another option is that we try to take the best of Christianity and the best of Psychology and blend them together like we would the ingredients of a salad. The problem with this model is that it fails to deal with the kind of advice I received as a Christian to cut somebody out of my life. What if the best of psychology contradicts the best of Christianity? How do we know what wins out? The tossed salad model quickly becomes problematic and confusing.

Model 3: Nothing Buttery

This model represents what many in the first generation of biblical counselling concluded - that the Bible is all we need and psychology brings little, if anything to true healing from depression and anxiety. Crabb points out that the flaw of this is that it places sole emphasis on human behaviour. By ignoring the legitimate physiological reasons why people can struggle with mental illness, the Nothing Buttery approach essentially assumes that a little more faith will ensure healing and restoration.

In my experience, both personally and as a pastor, I believe the reality is there is always a mix of a heart problem and a brain problem, and for holistic restoration to be cultivated, it would be wise to hit depression and anxiety from both of these angles.

The Alternative Solution: Spoiling the Egyptians

And so, what do we do? Like Dr. Crabb, I believe Christianity and Psychology can dwell together.

This model makes reference to Moses’ departure from Egypt, where he took goods from the Egyptians to sustain Israel on their travels. But while those goods brought blessing, Israel also took many false worship practices of Egypt. In other words, they were wise to take some things, but not others.

Why relate this to mental health? Because we ought to take some of the things we have learned from psychology, but not everything. In other words, we need to show discernment. Crabb is realistic when he concludes that:

The job of careful screening is no easy matter. In spite of the best of intentions to remain biblical, it is frighteningly easy to admit concepts into our thinking which compromise biblical content.
— Dr. Larry Crabb, Effective Biblical Counseling, p. 48

How do we avoid falling into an accidental trap of the tossed salad approach? We remind ourselves of the complete authority of scripture - that it is God’s wisdom and love spelled out for us.

Made in the image of God, even non-Christian psychologists will exhibit his wisdom with what they have learned about the brain which he has designed. But theirs, like ours, is a wisdom that is seen through veiled lenses.

And so, we would be wise to engage in what psychology has taught us about matters of mental health. But true biblical counselling means that when psychology contradicts scripture, we must believe and trust that God’s ways are higher and greater.

So how are we to be discerning? First, we grow in deeper knowledge and love of God’s word. Knowing God allows us to say yes at certain times and no at others. He has shown himself in the truths of Scripture. We can take confidence in the Spirit to remind and convict us of this truth, and so we don’t have to rely on our own wisdom to work out the difference between right and wrong. Like Paul, we can pray for discernment (Philippians 1 v 10). If you are new in your faith, or there are areas of advice you feel unsure about, it may be helpful to sit down with a pastor or Christian mentor and examine what has been discussed in a counselling session. God gives us his word, and he also gives us one another to help live out the truths of Scripture.
— Down Not Out, pp. 94-95

You Can('t) Do It

I wonder how you go at recognising your own limitations. If you’re like me, probably not very well.

We are a highly intelligent and capable creation - image bearers of God. But we’re not God.

It can be so easy to try and be somebody’s saviour. This is rarely intentional, but very easy to slip into.

Being there for someone in need can translate to fixing their problems.

A listening ear can turn into a rapid tongue.

A desire to love becomes an imperative to save.

Jesus tells us that the law is summed up as:

 

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.
— Mark 12:30-31

Notice what he doesn’t say - ‘love God and save your neighbour’.

No, we are to love our neighbour as ourselves. In the same way as we can’t save ourselves, we can’t save others. Yes - we are to make disciples - baptising them in the name of God. But the work of heart change is left to One far greater than ourselves.

When it comes to caring for those in need, particularly those struggling with mental illness, our love for our neighbour can so often blur into a self-imposed expectation to save them. But we can’t.

This is both profoundly confronting and liberating.

Confronting, because it means we aren’t ultimately able to ‘fix’ anybody. And this can hurt.

Liberating, because it means God doesn’t put an expectation on us that we can’t live up to.

Our prayer is both ‘God, why?’ and ‘God, I’m thankful that you don’t ask me to be you’. Our limitations are both a heartache and a relief.

Do we carry on walking beside those we love who are in despair? Absolutely. Can we offer advice and support? Of course. But let’s remember that the real work of healing, restoration and salvation is God’s. And so take your concerns to him in prayer.

 

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.
— Matthew 11:28-30

That promise is equally as true for the sufferer as it is for the carer.