Mental Illness and the Church
How many lives will be lost before we change?
I’m hidden under blankets in a bedroom of the parsonage next door to the church my husband pastors. My limbs are cinder blocks. My gut, a pool of quicksand. I hear a muffled voice. “Mom? It’s time for dinner. Mom?”
I roll onto my back and squint my eyes up at Zoya, ten years old, the easiest baby for me, the one who still crawls up in my lap and rests her head on my breast like she’d nurse if she could. “Hi.” I clear my voice. This is where it gets tricky. I don’t want my Major Depressive Disorder to scare my kids. I glob together blips of energy in my body. My mind gathers them like worn-out pieces of leftover pie crust that won’t stay together, even with a little flour and spit.
“Hi, honey. How was school?”
“OK.” Zoya’s voice is small, distant. I see fear in her eyes and work to remember if I’ve taken a shower today, or yesterday, or if I will, perhaps, take one tomorrow. “Um, Papa says it’s time for dinner. Can you come down and eat with us?” My daughter’s face is creamy and smooth, like white velvet.
I catch her sometimes, when I’m doing better, lying in her bed alone. “Whatchya doin?” I ask.
“Nothing, just resting.”
“OK,” I reply, and walk down our yellow hallway wondering if she’s sad. Would she tell me if so? I worry she’ll get whatever gene I seem to have inherited that makes life bad and hard for no apparent reason. I hope to God it isn’t so.
“No, not tonight. I’m still not feeling great.”
“Ok, do you want us to bring you up a plate?”
“Maybe a little later.”
Zoya bends towards me and wraps her soft arms around my body. Her embrace stops the ache for a second. A tear slides down my cheek, and I wipe it away before she can see it. “I love you, Mom.”
“I love you too, Zoya.”
She leaves my bedroom, and I wriggle around on the mattress to find a way to ease the pain. The door closes. People like Joel Olsten say you can choose happy. Okay, I choose it. I choose it every day. But it doesn’t choose me. I’m sinking. I don’t want to sink. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Jesus, help. Help me. I ache. I need help.
About two months ago, Isaac Hunter, pastor and son of well-known megachurch pastor Joel Hunter, committed suicide. Although unconfirmed, people assumed mental health issues were involved. Nine months ago, Rick and Kay Warren’s son Mathew also took his life after a life-long battle with mental illness. After tragic events like these, churches, Facebook feeds, Christian magazines, and radio shows stand up and take notice of mental illness…for a couple of weeks.
I am thankful that people care, that condolences are offered, and that mental illness is acknowledged on a larger platform. But not at the cost of a life. For Christians with mental illness, our struggles are still largely met with silence or platitudes. Trust God. Pray harder. Don’t let the enemy win.
I’m a former missionary, a pastor’s wife, and a leader in ministry. My mental health history goes like this: melancholy child who thought it was normal to lie in bed for hours, frightened new mother later diagnosed with postpartum depression, struggling missionary and pastor’s wife who couldn’t understand why prayer and Scripture did not calm the storms within, mother of a child with Down syndrome who for a time gave in to self-medication with cheap Chardonnay, ministry leader who suffered a breakdown resulting in a final diagnosis of major depressive disorder.
With the MDD diagnosis came the fatalistic fear that my struggles were here to stay on this side of glory, and a relief that after 30-some years, there was a name for my war. Since my diagnosis, I’ve fought the battle to health with Prozac, therapy, Jesus, and a supportive family.
We’ve not kept my depression secret from our church. My husband, Sergei, includes mental illness in his sermons and pastoral prayers, and the Lord has brought people to our ministry who grapple with mental anguish.
But we can do more. I fear my home group doesn’t understand the extent of my situation when I ask for prayer for my depression. As a leader in our church, the sting of stigma is still present when it comes to our sister in Christ who has bipolar disorder, or the woman at church who loses touch with reality and ambles up to the communion table whenever she desires, stuffing her face with the bread of Christ. As a sufferer and a leader, I look away, at a loss for how to truly get or offer help.
A recent article in Healthline News stated that depression is the second leading cause of disability in the world. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, in any given year, about 26 percent of adults in the U.S. have a diagnosable mental illness. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention says that 90 percent of people who die by suicide have symptoms of mental illness. And yet it is an unrecognized crisis in the church.
In his article “My Take: How churches can respond to mental illness” Ed Stetzer, President of LifeWay Research, shared a study out of Baylor University which indicated “that while help from the church with depression and mental illness was the second priority of families with mental illness, it ranked 42nd on the list of requests from families that did not have a family member with mental illness.” The Mental Health Grace Alliance says that “research reveals 30-40 percent of those with a mental illness seeking assistance from the church are told mental illness does not exist. Only 5 percent of churches were responsive.” By and large, churches are not addressing mental health.
So what can be done? Pastors and other leaders: educate yourselves. Utilize resources like The National Institute of Mental Health that provide up-to-date information and useful statistics about mental illness. Study examples from the Bible. Talk about King David and Naomi, who some say struggled with mental illness, from the pulpit. Abstain from making mental illness a spiritual problem. Help ease the stigma by acknowledging it.
Church, move away from ignorance. The Mental Health Grace Alliance offers seminars, specialized consulting, and training for churches and individuals interested in helping those affected by mental illness. The Fresh Hope support group ministry strives to “empower individuals to live a full and rich faith-filled life in spite of a mental health diagnosis.” Treat mental illness like other medical crises because it is. Offer tangible help. If you know a family battling mental illness, watch their kids, bring a meal, show up, listen, and pray for them.
To others, like me, who have faith and depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, OCD, or some other illness, can I gently ask you to speak up? Too many of us struggle in silence or give up on church altogether. Chances are you have been hurt in the past from sharing. It may be scary to try again. But owning your battle and your rightful presence in the church can help change the overall view of mental illness. Micah 7:8 says, “Though I sit in darkness, the Lord will be my light.” Let’s all work together to shine a light on the darkness of mental illness. And let’s resolve to help before the loss of more life.
Gillian Marchenko is a wife, mother, writer, and speaker. She is the author of Sun Shine Down.