This article is part of the 5 Myths series.
A Loaded Term
Mental illness. For many, that is a scary term.
“You have a mental illness.” This statement borders on terrifying! It brings up many unsettling thoughts and complicated fears in our hearts and minds. This subject is further confused by the many differing opinions swirling around the internet. Moreover, in the post-Christian era in which we live, Christians may wonder if the advice they find is true, scientific, or Biblical? These are the common myths I have encountered.
Myth #1: If I am diagnosed with a mental illness, I am doomed to live out the rest of my days here on earth in a miserable existence.
Feeling hopeless and helpless is a feeling that we all have encountered at various times in our lives. This feeling or thought is the most painful part of all mental illness. The diagnosis seems like being stuck at the end of a dead-end street. The truth, however, is that mental illness attacks our ability to think clearly and to experience feelings accurately.
When in the midst of hardship, a normal reaction is impatience and even a lack of being able to see past the pain. Mental illness, like many other afflictions, can endure longer than anticipated and inflict a great deal of pain. However, the reality is that, with proper care, recovery is possible and sustainable.
Myth #2: Having a mental illness is a sign of a moral failure.
Many Christians that have come to me for counseling live with the misperception that it must be sin that has caused a mental illness to occur, that it has arisen from unconfessed, undealt with sin in their (or another’s) life. In some cases, it is true that confession of sin is necessary in order to know true peace of mind and heart. In Psalm 32, David reflected on his experience of unconfessed sin with Bathsheba:
For when I kept silent, bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night, your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.
During a time of unconfessed sin, David was emotionally, physically, and spiritually miserable. He was a wreck! All the while he knew (by his own knowledge of the Scriptures, by the pricking of his conscience, by the convicting work of the Holy Spirit) that the root of his distress was unconfessed sin.
In situations where a person is living in known sin, we do right to pray for and plead with them to forsake their sin and turn to God in faith and repentance. However, we do a vast disservice to a person suffering from mental illness by suggesting that sinful rebellion against God is the only possible reason for depression or anxiety.
Many of the hardships we experience are a result of being fallen human beings living in a fallen world. The fall of man not only produced sin but also brokenness in all of creation: illness and death. We understand that we have a sinful nature and therefore even our best works are tainted by sin (Isa. 64:6). We know that we have actual sin: sins of omission and commission.1 As sinful human beings, we are sinful, but not everything that occurs in life is a direct result of actual sin.
In every life situation, whether pleasant or painful, we have the opportunity for sinful rebellion against God (Isa. 45:9) or for childlike trust, humble obedience, and rejoicing in the God of our salvation (Hab. 3:17–18, Rom. 5: 3–4, 12:12).
Myth #3: Mental illness is a sign of weakness.
The prophet Elijah was powerfully used by God. In the face of fierce opposition and even threat of death, he delivered God’s message with clarity and authority. I suspect there would be no one stepping forward to accuse Elijah of being weak! Yet, after a tremendous victory at Mount Carmel, he found himself discouraged and despairing of life and of future ministry. He was in the depths of a depressive episode (1 Kings 19).
We live in bodies that are susceptible to many maladies. Given the wrong circumstances, broken bones and mental illnesses can happen and are both included in the list of afflictions that we may suffer in this life. In the case of a broken leg, we do not debate whether the femur should have been stronger; rather we provide care for the hurting part.
Myth #4: If I encounter someone with a mental illness, I should keep my distance.
All of us, having gone through cold and flu season (or through the COVID pandemic) are well conditioned to “keep your distance” from someone who could potentially pass on a life-threatening illness to ourselves or our family members. If you have worked in a healthcare setting, you well understand the need for “universal precautions” to protect from contagious diseases being passed on.
Sadly, I have treated many people over the years who have felt like societal outcasts. Like the unclean lepers in the Bible, people seem to keep their distance from those with depression, anxiety, or any other mental health disorder.
Perhaps the fear is contamination: If I get too close, I, too, might get ill. Perhaps the fear is awkwardness: I will not know what to say. Perhaps the fear is making a mistake: If I say the wrong thing, I might make the situation worse.
In most cases, the worst mistake is to avoid the individual struggling with the mental illness; this communicates that they don’t matter, that they are not valued, and that they have no place in our lives or the life of our congregation. Another closely related mistake is to ignore the elephant in the room, to pretend to be completely oblivious to the illness. This communicates a lack of attunement to those hurting.
To approach and to care for those in affliction is to act as the body of Christ was designed to function: one member valuing and caring for the other member (1 Cor. 12:18–27). As a psychologist, I do not have the knowledge or training to do heart surgery or to provide care for a broken leg. When someone is struggling with an illness, I am able to visit and to talk with them, to pray over and for them, to ask how I may be able to help them in time of need. In the same way, we are able to minister to those afflicted with a mental illness: visit, talk, pray, comfort, help.
To approach and to care for those in affliction is to act as the body of Christ was designed to function: one member valuing and caring for the other member.
Myth #5: Ignoring a mental illness is the best way to make it go away.
Those of us who have seen the comedy movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail will well remember the battle scene between King Arthur and the Black Knight. During the sword fight, King Arthur chops off the Black Knight’s left arm. The knight refuses defeat and tries to dismiss the wound as merely a scratch. After his right arm is severed, he attempts to convince King Arthur that this was only a “flesh wound.” While the ridiculousness of this scene may appear humorous, trying this strategy in real life will only produce tragic results!
If you were experiencing chest pain and numbness in the left arm, ignoring the symptoms of a heart attack and hoping that the pain would go away could prove fatal! Waiting to treat the symptoms of an ailment, no matter how serious or seemingly insignificant, allows the distress to increase in magnitude. In the same way, attempting to ignore or to minimize the seriousness of a mental illness is usually a recipe for disaster.
When symptoms of a mental illness surface, we do want to treat them seriously. Most often when people struggling with mental illness finally decide to reach out for help, they admit, I wish I had taken this step years ago rather than struggling with this pain for so long.
Reaching out for help (whether you are a sufferer or a helper to someone suffering) is a difficult step to take. It is usually fraught with doubts: Am I making too much of this? What will others think of me? However, as my primary care physician’s office advised me when I called the doctor with a question about my health, It’s always better to have it checked out than to ignore it. What seems like a small issue now can turn into a big issue tomorrow.
If you are concerned about your own mental health or the mental health of a loved one, talk about it! Reach out to family members, to your pastor or church elders/deacons, to your primary care physician, to a Christian mental health provider. Choose to surround yourself with other Christians who are willing to act compassionately, to guide biblically, and to support you through those dark times of life. Help and healing is possible!
- Morning Prayer: Book of Common Prayer, Archbishops’ Counsel of the Church of England 2000-2004.
Tom Karel is the coauthor with David Murray of A Christian's Guide to Mental Illness: Answers to 30 Common Questions.
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