Mental Illness and the Church’s Failure

So, this is a hard post to write. There are a lot of people who may (or may not) take issue with or feel guilt with what I write here. And, even more importantly, I love the church and believe in the power of the church to actually effect good in the world. I believe that the body of Christ can do transformative and great things. But, when it comes to my experience with my mental illness, the church overwhelmingly failed me.

I started attending church with my family when I was 12 years old. This was just a little after I had started having serious thoughts of suicide. But, like I said, I am good at hiding my mental illness and I hid it in the church. However, I consistently heard the refrain that if I believed enough or had enough faith, then I would be ok and God would take away all of my suffering. Even as I became more and more Christian and did all the right things, my suffering never left. I thought about suicide everyday. And, yet, it was still consistently preached that people just needed a little more faith, needed to believe a little more, needed to pray, needed to read Scripture, and then they would be freed from all suffering.

As I continued through high school, I always remained depressed and contemplated suicide. As I said before, my parents noticed that I was pretty down and dismal one summer and decided to send me to a counselor. Now, due to my involvement in church and life as a Christian, they asked leaders in our church about recommending a counselor for me to go to. This is where the church failed. Instead of sending me to someone who was qualified to deal with my depression, they made it a priority to ensure that I was going to someone who would enrich my spiritual life. They recommended a “Christian” counselor a couple of towns over. My parents, deferring to people who knew better than them, sent me there. When I finally got in to see the guy, it was more than apparent that he was less concerned with my mental health and more concerned with where I was spiritually. The questions he asked were similar to what my pastor may have asked: are you reading your Bible? do you pray? are you involved in church? At the end, he finally said that there was nothing wrong with me and that I just had a “tender heart.” He never asked about my secret thoughts, what I wrote in my diary, how I felt, etc. It was an epic fail. (BTW, I know other people that went to this same counselor and who got the same treatment, being sent their by our church).

Next, I went to a Christian college. And here, the failure was enormous. First, I still consistently heard in class and in chapel that if people just believed enough and had faith and did the right things (praying, reading the Bible, helping people, etc.), then they would be healed and lead a right Christian life. I had students, even many psychology students, tell me that people did not really need meds and that it was in fact a weakness to have to take them – and I believed them and bought into it so much that I actually advocated this, even though I was the person most in need of meds.

During my senior year, the religion department had a special colloquium on holiness, as we did every year. However, this year we had a social worker come in. She dealt primarily with people who had mental illness of some sort and she dealt extensively with addicts. During the conversation, she explicitly said that these people would never be “healed fully” and would have to struggle throughout their lives. She even made mention that addicts would probably relapse at some point and that we needed to do the work of helping pick them back up. Mind you, this was to a group of a few hundred students who were primarily going to be going into ministry of some sort. I, of course, really resonated with what she said. But, the majority of students questioned her and, like good evangelicals, questioned why these people couldn’t just “pray and be healed.” Again, the belief touted was that if we believe enough, have enough faith, we should all be able to be fully healed. I even remember two professors who expressed this opinion in class after the discussion, saying that if people just made their minds up to be better, then they could be better.

This really messed with me because I was trying to make my mind up to be well and good and Christian while still struggling through life. I didn’t want to take meds or see a counselor because it’s not what good Christians were supposed to do. And, I was even told in one interview for my ordination that taking meds or seeing a counselor was grounds for dismissal from the process. So, really, the church was overwhelmingly telling me (and others like me) that we either had to “fake it till we made it” or we were disqualified from being part of the leadership of the church.

For me, this really came to a head when I was talking to a pastor who was assigned to help me through the ordination process. We were talking about the nature of ministry and what I saw myself doing. I mentioned that one of the things I was passionate about was helping people with problems. I said that I wanted to really engage people who were struggling with drugs or depression or self-harm or other forms of mental illness. He just looked at me and said, “Huh.” Then he made sure to tell me that he didn’t really have time for people like that or engaging people with problems because they should just be able to “get over it.” (Of course, this meant that I should just get over it). Then when I mentioned that I would do this ministry and start support groups for people who were struggling with these issues, he explicitly said, “We don’t want those kinds of people in our church.” (Again, this meant that I wasn’t wanted in that church, and my family and I left shortly afterward, costing me an opportunity of ordination therein).

So, to this point, the church has consistently told me that if I was just more faithful, that if I just believed a little more, then I would be healed. This was in direct contrast to the fact that many people in the church said they wanted to welcome the hurting and broken. But it was never to allow the hurting and the broken to be hurt and broken – it was so they could be healed. However, if we look at Jesus, he embraces the hurt and broken as hurt and broken and helps them deal with this in a way that doesn’t negate the hurt and brokenness, but work through it. In fact, if we look at the resurrected Jesus, He carries His scars with Him – they never go away. And this teaches us that we can be scarred and hurt and still be children of God.

Now, as a last word, I’d like to say that I am now part of a church community that embraces myself and others who are struggling with mental illness. This is not really on purpose as much as part of the DNA of the church. Our church, Trinity United Methodist in Plymouth, IN, is overly welcoming and hospitable and tries to make everyone feel like part of the church, regardless of where they come from. We take care of each other and try to do life together the best ways we know how. It’s not perfect, but we try really hard without actually having to try – we just are the way we are. And, the church embraces those who are other, different. They have allowed me to have support groups with not only mentally ill people, but those struggling with all sorts of problems. We have a number of people with a mental illness in the church and, from what I have been told, we feel like we are embraced by the church not as projects, but as part of the community.

With roughly 16 million people suffering some sort of mental illness episode every year, it is time for the church to rethink the way we talk and deal with the hurt and broken. It is no longer adequate (and it was never theologically justifiable) to just tell people to have faith and believe and all will be ok. We need to, instead, take up the image of Jesus as the One who suffers and allow people to see that He does and will always suffer with them. Jesus does not heal people by being far away and casting some distant magic spell; rather, Jesus comes alongside people and walks with them, suffering with them, while fully embracing who they are.

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About nmcrawford

I'm also a theologian with a Ph.D. from Loyola University Chicago. I work at a church. I live in northern Indiana with my wife and three sons. I also have bipolar II disorder. This is a blog for working out whatever it is I need to work out.
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2 Responses to Mental Illness and the Church’s Failure

  1. You’ll never know just how much I appreciate your blog. Your transparency and honesty are a true blessing to me. Thank you for allowing God to use you. We are all broken and it is glorious when we give ourselves permission to just be. Please continue writing!

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