Growing up in evangelical Christianity, mental health problems (and even strong emotions) were often dismissed as “needing Jesus” instead of legitimate medical issues. Post-partum depression was written off as lack of faith in God’s calling to motherhood. Bipolar disorder was written off as a lack of self-control. OCD was dismissed as if it was normal. Anxiety was lack of faith and discipline in prayer. Suicide was a sin driven by selfishness. Grief was indulgent. Anger was sin.
As a result, those needing actual help from friends, therapists, mentors, family members, and other potential sources of support were isolated by the stigma and shame of their struggles.
Today, in many Christian colleges, if you’re caught cutting or evidence an eating disorder, you’re more likely to be punished with suspension or expulsion than you are to get adequate and non-judgmental mental health care from experienced professionals.
Most Christians will urge you, if you admit to “struggling” (as if it was your fault or a temptation!) with a mental health problem, to go seek help from a “Christian counselor,” which usually does not mean a licensed therapist with adequate medical training to deal with the intensity of many mental health issues people face.
Even if mental illness is acknowledged by the church, you’ll find that the common ways of talking about it fall into categories that are still ignorant and unhelpful: mental illness is the “result of the fall” (you just need Jesus to fix it!), mental illness is a sign of spiritual issues (uhh…), mental illness is something to rejoice in because it is one more way for God to meet you in your weakness and show how awesome he is (Just. No. I refuse to celebrate horrible things as if God planned them).
This week, following Robin Williams‘ death, the discussion of depression and suicide featured prominently as a topic of discussion in Christian circles, with many bloggers coming forward to own their experiences with depression publicly. This was response grew astronomically louder after a popular Christian dudebro blogger, Matt Walsh, wrote an insensitive post about Williams, saying:
… I can’t comprehend it. The complete, total, absolute rejection of life. The final refusal to see the worth in anything, or the beauty, or the reason, or the point, or the hope. The willingness to saddle your family with the pain and misery and anger that will now plague them for the rest of their lives.
It’s a tragic choice, truly, but it is a choice, and we have to remember that. Your suicide doesn’t happen to you; it doesn’t attack you like cancer or descend upon you like a tornado. It is a decision made by an individual. A bad decision. Always a bad decision.
The resulting outrage and grief over Williams was a trending hashtag on Twitter started by blogger Luke Harms, called #faithinthefog. Under this hashtag, the Christian Twittersphere rallied for reform in the response to depression and mental illness by the evangelical church.
I’m encouraged by this response and by the conversation as it unfolds. I’m encouraged to see many conservative Christians who I might disagree with on a lot of things finding common ground in their outrage against perspectives on depression like that expressed by Walsh.
This is such a positive conversation, and the numbers participating in it are large enough to make me optimistic that the American churchgoer will no longer have to hide in shame and isolation when the black dog comes to call.
By the way, if you are struggling with depression and suicidal ideation, free and confidential help is available at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
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