Stopping the Stigma: How the Church Should Respond to Mental Illness

Author: Kristin Davis
July 31, 2019

Looking back, I can see God’s goodness and faithfulness throughout my life: a wonderfully supportive husband of almost 22 years, 3 kids who I’m crazy about (even when they drive me crazy), close ties with my parents and brothers, many genuine friendships, and fulfilling career and ministry opportunities.   

I didn’t always have that positive outlook on life.  I’ve had my share of suffering, dating back to late adolescence when I started to struggle with depression and dark moods.   These disorders have plagued my family for generations, and though we think of them as stigmatized illnesses that were tragically misunderstood decades ago, I can assure you that stigma still exists today.  I’ve lived with it for almost 30 years, and it’s been only in the last few years that I’ve felt compelled to talk publicly about it.  

I know how difficult these disorders can make daily life for those who struggle with them.  For me, I have felt shame at times for not being the spouse and parent I want to be.  Shame at not being able to control my emotions, or pray my way out of a deep, dark hole.  And the trouble is, appearances can be deceiving.  No one may ever suspect how dark your world can become.  Loneliness, fear and despair can set in, and we become in danger of not getting the help we need.  

Unfortunately, even in church (maybe especially in church), if you do take a big risk and let someone know you’re struggling, you may come to quickly regret it.  Because there aren’t always reasons or circumstances to explain depression, it’s hard for others to understand why you can’t just be more positive, count your blessings, pray and trust God more. But life doesn’t always work like that.  

In addition to prayer, we need medical solutions for medical problems.  Just like diabetes or heart disease, two conditions for which you can treat the symptoms, mental illness can be treated professionally.  Medications exist that can correct the chemical imbalances that cause the symptoms of disorders such as depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder.  With professional counseling, we can learn to manage our symptoms and find a life of meaning, not in spite of the illness, but because of it.  

As strange as it sounds, I am thankful for this journey from darkness to light.  It took a long time for me to believe that “God is good” when life gets hard.  Twelve years ago, during a very difficult time, I experienced such a profound experience of His grace that it changed not just my relationship with God, but my whole perspective on life, relationships, purpose and passion for living.  I developed a trusting dependence on Him capable of shining light into the darkest corners of my mind, as it still does today.

Whether we are aware of it or not, there are those in our midst who are laboring under the heavy weight of sadness and despair, anger and disappointment with God.  As naturally as it may come, let’s not offer them advice or solutions, because there probably aren’t any.  Those well-meaning words can be like salt in the wounds, further evidence that no one gets it, which can drive those painful emotions even further below the surface.  Instead, faithfully lift them up in prayer (which does bring about miracles), be compassionate, reach out with an encouraging text or note, and remind them (often) that they are loved.  You’d be amazed at what a difference that can make in someone’s life. 


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