Did you know that 18% of the US population has an anxiety disorder? According the the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety disorders develop from a complex set of risk factors, including genetics, brain chemistry, personality, and life events.
It is common to be diagnosed with both depression and anxiety. In fact, almost half of those diagnosed with depression will also be diagnosed with anxiety. It’s likely that there’s even more people who struggle with anxiety that are not diagnosed clinically. These two mental health illnesses are pervasive and often change the ways that those who struggle with them live. If anxiety-depression is that common across America, it’s highly likely that number is similar, if not greater, in our churches.
The last few years I’ve struggled with this seemingly negative stigma that fluctuates about mental health with christians. Anxiety and depression tends to be a sticky subject in many christian circles. I have not known christians who openly allowed others to know that they had a mental illness in the churches I’ve been to. It was a taboo topic. I knew very little of it myself. But the more I’ve opened up about my mental health struggles, the more I am finding solidarity among christians who have also been too afraid and too hurt to risk connecting with others in their suffering . The more risks I take in sharing my struggles, I am finding more people are saying, “me too“.
Mental ilnesses are complex and so are the opinions, perspectives, and thoughts that churches and other christian subgroups add to it. People (not just the church) struggle to understand mental health. Christians struggle to understand mental health in the scriptures. However, when we add in the church misconceptions that spring up, there are things that well meaning christians and churches tend to get wrong and it hurts. Sometimes the misconceptions add to the suffering.
“Be merciful to me, O Lord, for I am in distress; my eyes grow weak with sorrow, my soul and my body with grief. My life is consumed by anguish and my years by groaning; my strength fails because of my affliction, and my bones grow weak”-Ps.31:910
Mental health stigmas in churches can prevent people from getting the help they need and deserve. Before I began struggling with depression-anxiety, I thought and said many unhelpful and hurtful things to friends who were struggling. I looked to a spiritual solution rather than a psychological or clinical treatment. I’d give people more books, more scripture to memorize, push them to pray more, get out more, serve more, connect more. “More” is a defeating word when you have depression-anxiety. How can anyone “do more, have more, be more” when they are empty and actually need?
I have oversimplified mental health. I once told a friend who suffers from anxiety to, “Just trust God”. I would equate depression-anxiety to sin. I didn’t know what to say if someone seemed depressed or anxious. Until more recently in life, I knew no christians that said they had received treatment, counseling, or hospitalization due to mental health complexities. There felt this stipulation to be “fine“, to “pull yourself up by your boot straps“, in order to fit in, in order to belong. No one should have to “hide” to belong, not in the Church.
I have learned much since those days. I’ve since been a receiver of all sorts of harmful, oversimplified attempts at understanding. And I really do believe that people, the church, wants to understand. Some people do. Sometimes we need carrying, not dragging. We need to be pulled near, not pushed off. We need a safe place to come undone and not fear that those we love will think we have abandoned the faith, or worse, abandoned them.
Depression-anxiety can often feel like Psalm 31:12: I am forgotten by them as though I were dead. Understanding is hard and takes a lot of energy, time, and grace. Severe depression is beyond description. When you can’t describe the intensity of such a thing, it cuts to your spiritual core. There’s no quick fix or scripture or amount of “serving others” that can bring someone out of anxiety-depression. Someone who has anxiety-depression suffers.
For the next few posts I want to investigate what it looks like to see anxiety-depression as a form of suffering, rather than something that can be “fixed” with solely a spiritual solution, what it looks like to see the Church as a hospital, and approaches for fighting this depression-anxiety battle.