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:
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.
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.
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.
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.