Mental health and the church have never had a good relationship. The breakdown exists because of the people representing the church. The people who feel they hold the oracles of God are often dismissive of individuals who struggle with mental health. The impression is that it is not worthy enough of attention. It’s put the church in an awkward position, and for this to change, they have to become comfortable with talking about mental health and suicide.
It’s not a new problem.
As I research for an episode of my podcast, I asked my husband if he had ever attended any church-related presentation around suicide. According to the Samaritans, men are three times more likely to commit suicide than women.
He had never attended a workshop or presentation around suicide.
I grew up in a Christian home, and even those years when I move to the fringes of the church I still attended, and I have never heard anyone talk about suicide. Not even on the token mental health days.
As I reflected on this need, I saw a post on my facebook feed of another pastor who sadly succumbed to the darkness of depression.
It is clear that there is a need, yet the church remains silent on an issue that targets the population that they depend on to lead.
I understand that most in leadership in the church do not understand the root of mental health problems. However, there is also a distinct lack of empathy in the tone and manner of some.
I hear it in the tones as they discourage people from seeking counselling. To some, mental health is your fault, possibly caused by a lack of understanding or acceptance of Biblical principles.
God uses people to help people so that those who are struggling can have hope. The relationship is an integral part of the recovery.
It is though these loving relationships that demonstrate the care and kindness of God that many will find healing.
Scattered through the bible are passages where it explicitly states that Jesus came to ‘heal the broken-hearted and bind up their wounds’. Let us as Christians stop ignoring the wounds of those who are suffering. Let us make the church a safe place for people to be ok, saying they are not ok.
Let us all get trained so that we can spot the person who is moving to the edges or the ones who have erratic mood swings. They are not attention-seeking, and they also need help. Let us not have meetings about them and sideline them when they can’t function in the capacity that we think they should.
Let us learn how to apply the scriptures appropriately.
Learn to walk the distance with the hurting, because, for some, recovery is a long journey.
Judy (not her real name) was afraid to return to church after a time in psychiatric care because of fear of the reception. She was ashamed of the things she did while ill and so felt fearful of returning.
Likewise, Sandy was ashamed of how she reacted during a manic stage. She engaged overzealously in servicing, trying to compensate for her actions. She used service to hide the shame and to make up for the things she did that she felt was wrong.
You can’t always think your way out of depression.
Whenever I talked to someone about mental health, I get a lot of thinking strategies which are all cognitive tools. Those with depression will tell you; it’s not always because they don’t have useful cognitive tools, they do.
Sometimes cognitive tools fail because you can’t ever think your way out of depression.
Sometimes the person might need some tools around how to apply diet, get help sleeping, and accompany them on walks. Start a walking club at your church that takes people on frequent hikes or weekly walking around your area or to designated destinations.
Talk about the merry heart as you walk and be prepared to listen.
At times of triggers and coping with an overwhelmed sympathetic system; people can’t apply cognitive tools because those functions of the brain are not operating as they should.
They need other strategies that will help to soothe the sympathetic system. And get them back to a place where they can listen, hear and apply those scriptures you are sharing.
A church that is heart centred will be able to see the bigger picture. Additionally, a Christian who is Christ centred will be able to see the bigger picture. They will know that pain is not one dimensional, and people are complicated; therefore, no one strategy will work.
Because everyone is different and experience their grief in different ways, consequently, a range of strategy needs to be employed to help the hurting.
It is not always the person who looks sad or has experienced some traumatic episode that is vulnerable to acting on suicidal thoughts. And it is not only people with depression that commits suicide; people commit suicide for a variety of reasons.
Dr Neil Nedleys, depression recovery program, gets a good result and seem to work for a lot of people who experience depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety etc.
If the church wants to remain relevant in this generation, we have to do something differently.
Let’s work as Jesus worked.
While on earth, Jesus did a lot more than just teaching in parables. He is the model of care. His attitude towards the hurting is worth studying so that we can start having these critical conversations. When we begin studying His method and work as He works, we will see that we are letting Him down and the people who He came to save. He was loving and kind. He sought the good of the people, and then He said ‘follow me’.
According to the Samaritans, there were 6859 suicides in the UK alone. That’s a lot of families in confusion trying to renegotiate life without someone they love.
Some of these people might be in your church. Is it a place where they can talk about the effects of their loss?
A couple of years ago, I was asked to speak to a woman who was in the first throes of pain after losing her husband to suicide. Nothing made sense.
She was trying to figure things out for her and her children and trying to hear the questions that she can never answer.
She had a sound support system in the friends that stayed close. These are some of the things the church could do.
If the church wants to appear caring and represent the loving character of Christ, it needs to start with an aggressive and robust approach to help the hurting.