There are some disturbing misconceptions about mental illness in Christian circles.
Here are some extracts from the recent Southern Cross cover story 'Struggling Saints' - read it in full here.
Research shows some disturbing misconceptions about mental illness in Christian circles. For example, a US study showed 42 percent of people with mental problems had the illness dismissed in some way by their church. An Australian study in 2007 by Kristine Hartog and Kathryn Gow found that more than a third of churchgoers attributed a demonic cause to mental illness, even to depression.
Dismissal is not Godly
“Another far-too-common way of dismissing mental illness - generally by well-meaning Christians- is the myth that prayer is all a Christian needs,” says Max Schneider, the NSW director of the Australian Institute of Family Counselling, which provides courses to equip Christian counsellors.
“These views can result in the alienation of many who desperately need the spiritual support that the church is best placed to provide. Healing does require prayer, but prayer is sometimes not all that goes into healing”.
One of the those we spoke to for the story was the Rev Lily Strachan, who works with the Australian Fellowship of Evangelical Students at Macquarie University, and has given Bible talks about how to cling to Jesus in times of struggle with mental health.
It’s an issue she feels passionately about, having suffered from mental illness herself. She stresses the importance of getting medical treatment for mental illness, but believes the spiritual aspect of the sickness is just as real as important. Warped thinking amid suffering lead us to doubt God’s goodness and believe Satan’s lies about ourselves and God. The deepest and most important need, she says, is to trust the goodness of God.
“In my depression, I believe the following lies: that there’s no hope and I will never get better, that God is not good, that he doesn't have a good plan for my life, that there’s no purpose to my suffering, that I will never be happy, that the bible cannot help, that prayer cannot help, that God's people cannot help. And that lie that underpins all the lies is that my God is not good. This lie led me to all sorts of dark and lonely places. And this is what we must fight, moment to moment, with the truth of scripture” she says.
Strachan (pictured above) reassures anyone suffering from mental illness that they are not “bad” Christians if they can’t spend sustained time in prayer every day. “God knows how you are feeling and he rejoices in your simple cries for help,” she says.
The message of the Gospel can help
We need to look to the right source of truth about God and ourselves - not by looking inward at our feelings or outward at how others seem to be getting on, but in Scripture, where page after page shows us how much God loves us.
“God may not eliminate our suffering but he will work for our good to make us more like Christ, even through suffering.” Strachan says. “He will not abandon you or forsake you. There’s a good plan for your life and you can trust him, whatever is happening in your life. You may not always feel that way, but it is true and we can cling to it anyway”
Former Moore College lecturer on pastoral care, Dr Keith Condie, believes churches need a more robust theology of suffering to balance the message of the world that people can have whatever they want and achieve anything.
“It’s not true,” he says. “Life is hard. When it comes to suffering, how will they respond to that?”
Condie and his wife Sarah are the inaugural directors of the Mental Health and Pastoral Care Institute, an innovative project of Anglican Deaconess Ministries. They have drawn up a strategic plan - of prevention, equipping and supporting - to help churches care for their flock, especially those with mental health concerns.
“How can we care? What can we do to provide for people in the midst of mental illness and also to help care for their carers?”
Condie believes senior ministers are key to reducing the stigma attached to mental illness “because the senior minister shapes the culture of a church, both consciously and unconsciously.
“The mental health of senior ministers is important, but also those ministers need to be prepared to speak about mental health upfront and make helpful applications in their sermons, recognising one in every four or five people sitting in the pew is likely to be suffering from some form of mental illness”
The upside for the Christian sufferer, of course, is the extraordinary resources available in the richness of the gospel.
“God’s unconditional love and the fact that we are saved by grace, not by our performance, are beautiful wonderful truths,” Condie says. “And one of our goals is, how do we help these truths be woven into our hearts in a way that really refreshes our souls rather than bringing us further down”
Read 'Struggling Saints' in Southern Cross