Mental Illness - The New Leprosy
THIS IS PART ONE OF A TWO PART GUEST SERIES BY DR. ZACHARY SIKORA, PSY.D. HE'S A GODLY MAN, MY DEAR FRIEND & A GIFTED PSYCHOLOGIST.
In a context where suffering and hurt should be welcomed, the Christian church has largely dealt with those suffering with mental health problems like modern day lepers: excluded from the camp and stigmatized.
With suicide, depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions making the front pages and lead stories of our media outlets, society is ripening to the idea that psychological malady is universal and in need of attention. The Christian church needs to follow.
Jesus Christ directly called those who labor and are heavy laden to seek him for rest. As followers of Christ, it is therefore the responsibility of Christians to care for these souls and the Church’s obligation to cultivate an environment that welcomes this process. However, it must first be understood the missteps that have led the Church to separate themselves from this calling.
Here are three overarching mistakes that have led the Christian church to make outcasts of those with mental health problems.
1. Disdaining Their Struggle
Simply put, the Church has outright rejected the hurt of those with mental illness. They’ve refused to acknowledge the anguish and misery that accompanies psychological distress. In doing so, a message of invalidation has been communicated. A message that on the surface expresses that psychological problems are unacceptable, but underneath communicates an even more damaging message: that they’re unworthy and disqualified from entering God’s presence. Often, this message only perpetuates the lies that those with mental illness already tell themselves.
2. Downplaying Their Suffering
The response, "Just pray about it,” has never been more damaging. This has been the default response from many Christians to those who suffer with psychological problems. This response promulgates two things:
1) That if they pray harder and more fervently God will certainly take away their suffering.
2) That communication about their struggles beyond the time limit of a prayer is not permitted.
The problem with these promulgations is that God never promised if we pray harder He will take away our pain. In fact, this line of thinking supports the idea that if we work hard enough we can earn God’s blessing - the antithesis of the one true gospel. In addition, it discourages vulnerable and honest communication about our pain to one another. Sometimes God’s healing is found in the empathic understanding of a fellow believer not a half-hearted, rushed prayer.
3. Delegating Their Shelter
Churches were once known as safe havens, a place for anyone to seek physical shelter and mental solace despite their walk in life. However, the modern Church has somehow convinced itself that matters related to psychological pain should be solely left to “mental health professionals” and “experts” in the sciences, thus deeming the Church incapable of understanding and caring for such issues. The solution seems to have been to ship the psychologically distressed to other shelters.
This is a mistake.
On the one hand, referring to clinical experts can be good - the Church recognizes that it has limitations with certain issues and uses professionals to responsibly care for such matters. On the other hand, this process entrusts the most fundamental and integral human aspects to the care of contrary worldviews if the professional is not biblically informed. A sobering thought, to say the least.
The Christian church needs to abandon its fear and stigma toward those with mental illness and own the responsibility that human suffering extends beyond that of the physical, financial, and relational realms. Healing must start with Jesus Christ, so the Church must open its doors again.
TOMORROW: 3 Keys To Engaging Those Struggling With Mental Health Illness