Something To Talk About
Mental illness has played a big role in my life, yet the amount of recognition I give to it is quite small. Lately, mental illness, at least the struggle with it, has been on my mind a lot. Over the past six months I have known three people within different Christian circles who have committed suicide. This has reminded me that some people have deep and dark internal struggles, struggles that only by grace God has given me the resources to have success fighting against, otherwise I would have likely done the same. As I see the conversation of suicide and mental illness addressed by those in Christianity one things is clear, there seems to be little understanding of the trial, almost to the point of ignorance. It is shameful how the struggle of mental illness has been stigmatized by believers, which goes to show, people would rather turn against the unknown, than to learn about and understand it. What I want to share in this post and to hopefully gently educate those who read it on (the last few sentences will be as stern of a tone as I go) are a few points on the struggle of mental illness, especially how I see it as a believer. Along with this, my goal is also to provide some tips to understand and respond to those whose struggle is mental illness.
The Struggle is Real
Mental illness is a trial, a struggle, or whatever Christianese term you want to use, that many are faced with. The Bible clearly shows that believers are not exempt from trials. James 1:2-3 says “2 Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, 3 for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.” Notice that James statement says “when” not “if” regarding meeting trials of various kinds. I submit to you that trials, struggles, hard circumstances, these can be just as much internal as they can external. For some people the “trials of various kinds” happens to be mental illness. There is nothing in the Bible that says trials strictly have to be circumstantial or external, the trials of many come not just from outside, but within. James says trials of “various kinds” not one kind. Even broader, the Bible does not provide us with a criteria of what trials specifically look like, we have their reality, that they exist, but not a list of what these may or may not be. This this is not a bad thing, both Romans 5 and 1 Peter 4 talk about the purpose of trials is growth for those of faith. Again, we are not given details of the trials, but their purpose, meaning, they can look different for anyone and can be many things. Just as trials outside of ourselves are instruments of growth, so are those from within. All of us have some trial in our lives we deal with, inside and out, they may not look the same,but that does not negate their legitimacy. What is important when relating and ministering to people with mental illness is not viewing mental illness differently from other trials. Yes, what one person is struggling with may be different from that which I am personally, we still have the common ground that we both struggle. Seeing struggles with mental illness as another one of the trials human beings are thrown at in life helps create the bond that we are all imperfect, yet God is using struggles and trials as a process of refinement.
Ignorance May Be Bliss, But It Is Still Ignorant
Education, comprehension, and understanding can go a long way. According to Newsweek 42.5 million American adults, which is 18.5 percent of the United States population, meaning 1 in 5 people, suffer from some form of mental illness. It is a big enough issue, a common enough trial, that we as believers should be doing all we can to understand it. My amazement never ceases when I mention Bi-Polar disorder how little people know about it, and what terrible misconceptions, not to mention stigmas, are present in their knowledge of the topic. Absolutely, some people use mental illness as an excuse, and yes sin issues as well as spiritual oppression can cause irrational behavior in people, but for a lot of folks something is physically happening inside of them. We do not look down on people receiving medical treatment for heart issues, diabetes, or cancer, yet when it comes to mental illness many ignorantly believe it is a matter of will power, that there is no physical issue. I take lithium for Bi-Polar Disorder, and just as anybody with any affliction takes medication to help them function in a healthy manner, the same has to be done for me. Like anybody else, I still have to depend on the Lord and maintain disciplines for a strong spiritual life, the medicine does not do that for me, it helps, but intentionality is still a strong need. Do some research, pursue understanding, because I can guarantee that whether it is yourself, a family member, or a friend, mental illness is something you have come in contact with. Oh, and for all of you nouthetic counselors and believers in the world, get a life. I absolutely believe that Christ can heal people from their afflictions, but at the same time when He does not, the reason probably is not lack of faith, but Him wanting to teach us something. In 2 Corinthians 12 Paul talks about how he is still weak, all the trials God has allowed in his life, and how he still has a “thorn in his flesh”, I am not saying this is mental illness, but there were some struggles the Lord left in Paul’s life, and he was stronger because of them. Whether internal or external, God is not after changing our trials, He wants to change us through them.
Description Not Definition
Like any trial, circumstance, struggle, or affliction, mental illness does not define a person. I have never been a fan of referring to people by what they struggle with. For example, I am not Bi-Polar, I struggle with Bi Polar disorder, but I am not defined by it. This is something we commonly do to people and it is toxic, especially for believers trying to live in positional truth. A believers afflictions, internal or external, even their actions, do not define who they are, only Christ does. 2 Corinthians 5 contains an excellent statement of positional truth, Paul says “From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. 17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” Anybody who is a believer should not be defined by anything other than their position in Christ. That means they are not anorexic, a cancer patient, bi-polar, an addict, or any of those labels we put ourselves and others in bondage to, for those who are in Christ, their definition is in Him alone. Sure, those words may describe what people do, but it does not define who they are. Our struggles and trials are meant to refine not define us.
Here are a few practical steps from this post.
- Realize that not everyone struggles with the same thing, trials are different for each person. We may not always be able to relate specifically to each other, but there is the common ground that life can be hard, and while our obstacles may be vary, being a Christian is a journey all believers walk together. Everybody has trials, that is a good enough starting point for connecting with others.
- Seek understanding, educate yourself on mental illness. I know that we are human and would rather write off the unknown than understand it, but we cannot, that is stupid, such behavior is for Philistines, and nobody wants to be a Philistine. I do not know, maybe you do, but for the rest of us, we should take a few minutes to research on Google or whatever your preferred method, to gain a better understanding of what others are going through.
- Build deeper relationships with people. Regardless the circumstances, going beyond shallow pleasantries and having deeper conversations can do a lot to help someone. Our goal should be to try to understand, to go deeper in the lives of people, and direct them to resources for professional help if they need it. Human beings hide things, symptoms, sadness, depression, struggles, that is why transparency is so important not just for us to project, but to pursue. There are also times where it is very obvious that people are not doing well, reach out to them, even strangers. Our culture likes to think it is deep, but it is all style with no substance. Talk to people, learn about someone else, and show some vulnerability, have a conversation that matters, you never know who it will help.
- Enough with the labels. We should not define anybody by their strengths or weaknesses, this goes double for those who are believers. God has made us individual people, not to be summed up by what we do, but defined by who we are. Unbelievers are lost creations of God who need Christ, and believers are people defined by Him, nothing else is meant to be a human beings definition. As we see people this way it becomes a great motivator, for the lost to bring truth to them, and those who believe edification, even reminding them of their position. Be intentional with how you think of people, the next time you see a person as anything other than in Christ or not, remind yourself of who they are, stop the thoughts.
We are all in this together. The more I live the Christian life it continues to become apparent that things are rarely so cut and dry, life can be messy, but it is also brilliant. I wish it were all as black and white as what some people try to describe it as, fortunately God has given us colors. Mental illnesses are not going away, if Christians cannot be an example of understanding and effectively responding to these afflictions, no one can. All the same, think about these things, because even a little understanding can make a big difference.