They're People, Too
They're People, Too:
Thoughts on how we as followers of Jesus treat our brothers and sisters with mental illnesses
BY ISABEL ONG
I am not qualified to help people struggling with mental health issues, but perhaps that is precisely why I must talk about it.
It’s not just a responsibility shouldered by counselors, therapists and pastors. It’s not something that should continue to remain taboo or shameful.
I have not experienced mental illness before but I know friends who have, in varying degrees of severity. I have friends who feel ashamed to mention that they need therapy and are seeing a counselor; friends who think that this means that they aren’t good enough or “Christian” enough; friends who feel that because of it, they aren’t accepted or welcome in the Church.
And that's precisely why I want to hold space for people struggling with depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, anorexia, panic disorders, obsessive compulsive disorders, psychosis and more.
So here I am, just a person, just another Jesus-follower, telling the world that it is time to talk about mental health. Because they are people, too.
We need to stop being afraid. We need to stop pretending it’s not a big deal.
We need to stop thinking that we can just leave it to the professionals, though that may well be a necessary and recommended step to take.
It recently hit me that people who have a mental illness are no different than I am. They serve in church and tithe faithfully. They drink iced lattes and listen to Reckless Love on repeat (have you heard Justin Bieber’s version?). They get frizzy hair and paper cuts and holes in their socks. They are just like me, and they are just like you.
How can we help them to feel like they belong, that they aren’t too damaged or too broken? How can we extend grace, love and acceptance? How do we re-formulate our all-too-human responses to avoid and deflect?
On a personal level, I believe that there will be opportunities for us to create space.
Space to be authentic and vulnerable.
Space to wrestle, weep, and wail.
Space that affirms and comforts.
Space that recognizes that there aren’t any quick fixes, and that this may be an everyday reality.
To do so, we need to create conversations, and be courageous enough to pursue topics that we might feel wholly inadequate and unequipped for. We need to pursue them nonetheless, because there are stories that need to be heard and tears that need to be shed.
We also need to listen without judgment, and listen more with our hearts than our ears. A posture of openness and gentleness can often speak louder than any form of well-intentioned advice can.
“What hurting people need, perhaps most of all, is to know that they are not alone, that someone else will hear their story and will love them just as much after they tell it,” writes Amy Simpson in her book Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission. “They need to know that their pain does not mean God has turned his back on them.”
On a larger church-wide level, I believe that there are ways to plug the conversation gap and chip away at the stigma that mental illness often bears.
Throughout the course of history, the Church has sadly been a source of hurt for someone with mental illness. In the past, it was often regarded as a form of punishment for committing a grave sin, or as a sign of demonic possession.
These beliefs are still perpetuated in modern times, albeit less directly.
In an article on Bustle published earlier this year, one woman writes that her church told her that her panic attacks were "her fault", and that she was chided for “not giving her anxiety to God”. Another woman in a Relevant Magazine article shares that she was let go from her job in a Christian organization after revealing her mental health struggle — her “dirty little secret” — to her boss.
Thankfully, churches today are becoming more aware of how they can better support people struggling with mental illnesses. In my part of the world (Vancouver, Canada), there are churches, charities, and seminaries that hold courses on mental health, where people are equipped to become more confident in interacting and understanding people who are facing mental health problems. Simpson also writes of churches that hold weekly mental health support groups and conferences.
In short: There is something wildly beautiful and redeeming about a Christian community that chooses to journey alongside those who fight valiant battles far beyond what the naked eye can see.
If you share the same convictions I do, that mental health should be talked about more within your community, what’s stopping you from initiating conversation about it in your immediate sphere of influence?
Raise it up as a discussion point in your life group. Pray for friends who are going through this. Text someone who posted an uncharacteristically emotional quote on Instagram. Or schedule a coffee date with someone whom you think needs a friend right now.
I’m just a person, just another Jesus-follower, telling the world that we need to talk about mental health. That all we need to do, really, is to reach out to someone and say:
I see you, I’m willing to walk beside you in this journey.
Photo by Benjamin Combs