It Starts on Sundays: Why Open Discussion on Mental Health in the Church Starts on the Stage on the Lord’s Day

I’m a pretty transparent person, somebody you’d describe as “wearing their heart on their sleeve.”

Anytime I’ve heard that phrase, I feel like it’s always said in this gray area as far as whether or not it’s a good thing. I think that’s how I would describe my transparency: sometimes good, sometimes bad.

Sometimes I get frustrated by that. Obviously, I wouldn’t want everyone to hear all of my thoughts, so “total transparency,” in the truest sense of the phrase, wouldn’t be something I’m clamoring for. But I think there’s positives in being more open about things, talking about more topics, even the hard ones, the taboo subjects.

Sexual assault and domestic violence. Drug use and weapons. Mental health.

I’ve written a lot about mental health over the years because it’s been a constant part of my life, and I really believe that God’s educated me in it to share with others. But when we look at the numbers, it appears that a sizable chunk of the Christian church doesn’t feel likewise.

Feeling Left Out

In 2014, LifeWay Research conducted a survey of Protestant pastors, individuals diagnosed with acute mental illnesses (depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia) and family members of those with acute mental illnesses. If you’ve ever been in a normal evangelical church with a mental health disorder, you probably won’t be surprised in the results.

A sample of the results:

  • 56 percent of pastors interviewed “strongly agree(d) that local churches have a responsibility to provide resources and support to individuals with mental illness and their families.”
  • 49 percent of pastors rarely or never spoke to their church in sermons or large group messages about acute mental illnesses. 
  • 28 percent of African-American pastors said they spoke about it once a month or more, while just 4 percent of white pastors said they did.
  • 22 percent of pastors said they’re “reluctant to get involved with those with acute mental illness because previous experiences strained time and resources.”
  • 53 percent of individuals with acute mental illness described their church as “supportive.”
  • 36 percent of evangelical pastors were less likely to select “Medications should be used any time they can ease symptoms” than mainline pastors (50 percent).

The study is a fascinating exploration of perspectives on mental health and the church. It was done five years ago, so there’s no telling how things have changed. The survey happened in 2014, the year I began to understand the complexities of my mental health. So these statistics make sense to me.

The LifeWay Research team also gathered a group of mental health experts for the study. They didn’t participate in the surveys, but gave their thoughts on various topics. 

Among the findings:

  • “People with mental illness or their families deal with a large amount of shame and social stigma around the illnesses.”
  • “Pastors’ reactions to people struggling with mental illness are varied.”
  • “Pastors are most likely to change their view on mental illness once they are personally impacted by it.”
  • “Before sharing their illness with others, it is important for the individual to feel they are in a safe church or group.”

Through this study — which is one example, yes, but from a reputable source — we see that the church isn’t talking that much about mental health, but some are, and the majority of people with mental health disorders are finding their churches supportive. I’m happy to see the positive results, but there’s something missing.

Talking about mental health openly and lovingly in Christian community is vital. I can back this up with my personal experience. When I first felt symptoms of my depression and anxiety, I didn’t know how to speak about it for two reasons: I couldn’t really explain it to myself, and I didn’t know how to explain it to somebody else. Even my best friends in college, those I loved and trusted with a lot of other things, didn’t seem to me to be ready to handle it. I don’t blame them, by the way, and don’t hold any grudges or frustration with them.. 

That left me dealing with it on my own. Anyone who deals with any major illness on their own can tell you it doesn’t go well. Isolation often makes mental illness worse, as being lonely can just breed depression or anxiety, and not treating things like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia can have disastrous, even fatal consequences through suicide and accidents. Search “people with schizophrenia shot” and you’ll see that many individuals have been killed by police who didn’t know what to do — again, not blaming them entirely — with someone having an episode and brandishing a weapon.

That leads to many having the shame that prevents and (most times) the inability to accurately describe what’s happening to well-meaning people who don’t have the time or resources to fully understand what’s going on. It leaves us stuck and hurt, unsure of what to do next, even in the church. I’d add a “just” qualified to the 53 percent of those surveyed with acute mental illnesses said they felt supported in their church. Just 53 percent.

Why isn’t that 100 percent? A couple of reasons, I think. First, some of us struggle to feel supported no matter what happens. Mental health disorders alter the way you think and properly evaluate circumstances, leading to the 33 percent in the survey that said they didn’t know how they felt about it. Secondly, a lack of open conversation, as evidenced by the just 49 percent of pastors that rarely or never spoke about mental health in a large setting, can keep people in the dark.

This has to change.

Starting on Sunday

When I was younger, my family would go to church on Sunday. When we left, usually to go to lunch somewhere, my parents would ask me and my siblings what we learned. I honestly can’t remember if I learned anything from sermons until I was in double-digit ages, but it was a common experience for me and many of my peers.

How often do you see your Facebook friends who are Christians and active members of a church go to their social media feeds and write about how great the sermon was? There’s a church in my hometown that encourages its members to share the “social media moment” of the message each Sunday, often during the service. What’s shared on Sunday morning, or whenever you attend your church’s large gathering, becomes the church’s calling card. What the pastor says on Sunday mornings is vital to a church’s public image and often reveals what he or she, as well as the congregation, values.

Much too often, as the LifeWay study showed, mental health is not one of those things. 

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 1 in 5 U.S. adults experience a mental illness each year, and 1 in 25 experience a serious mental illness that “substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities.” That means that out of a church of 200 adults, it’s likely that 40 are dealing with some sort of mental health issue, and for eight of them, it substantially interferes with their life, including church. 

When it comes to the marginalized in society, the ones Jesus showed His love for and commanded His disciples to do the same, the numbers are higher. An estimated 46 percent of homeless adults staying in shelters live with severe mental illness and/or substance use disorders. Approximately 20 percent of state prisoners and 21 percent of local jail prisoners have “a recent history” of a mental health condition. Astonishingly, 70 percent of youth in juvenile justice systems have at least one mental health condition, and at least 20 percent live with a serious mental illness.

Despite these numbers, NAMI says, just 41 percent of adults in the U.S. with a mental health condition received mental health services in the previous year.

It’s my very firm belief, something I’ll likely go to the grave with, that changing this situation, both in the U.S. and in the church, starts by speaking about it on the biggest stage possible. In the church, that’s Sunday morning.

Speaking as someone who has multiple mental health disorders, I can tell you that the pastor who addresses depression, anxiety and more becomes a representation of Christ more strongly to me and to many than the one who preaches verse-by-verse through the Bible. Doing both — which is possible, I’ll show you how later — is even better.

I think it’s a symptom, an unintended consequence, of the evangelical church’s preaching pattern. Seeking to avoid “picking and choosing” Bible verse to support one’s own opinion, pastors will pick a book of the Bible and go verse-by-verse. I think that can be good, especially through epistles like Romans that perfectly explain the basis of Christian theology, or narratives like 1 and 2 Samuel that tell the story of God’s first people, the nation of Israel, and how they did some things right and screwed some other things up. 

But since the Bible is an ancient book, and we get too scared (sometimes rightly) of reading something into the text that isn’t there, we don’t talk about the modern problems to which the principles of Scripture speak. Far too often, at least in my experience, pastors avoid the difficulties of handling social media, properly engaging the popular culture of the day and dissecting how mental health problems can be answered — not fixed, but answered — with the love of God. 

This can be fixed. It’s not hard, really. And it doesn’t even have to be a sermon.

A Panel Solution

A couple weeks after a regular attendee at my old church committed suicide, I was talking to a fellow member and friend of mine who also struggled with mental health issues. We lamented the fact that the church at large seems so under-prepared to handle things like suicidal thoughts and people feel relegated to suffering in silence.

I had an idea. Why not have a Sunday service dedicated to mental health? Make everything revolve around the idea of making mental illnesses meet Jesus. 

A few months later, it was set. I created a video mashing a performance of the song “1-800-273-8255,” named after the National Suicide Prevention Line, with comments on mental health struggles from celebrities and news clips of prominent people who had committed suicide. The argument was this: “The world outside the church is already dealing head-on with mental health disorders, in a very real and in-your-face way. People like Kristen Bell and The Rock are talking openly about this. Why aren’t we?”

My pastor at the time, who had been open about his mental health struggles in the past, opened the service explaining what was going to happen. We had a testimony from a woman in the church who spoke about her experience. After a couple songs, we got to the best part: a panel discussion with several members from the church (including me) about mental health.

My friend and I represented having severe anxiety and depression. A full-time therapist who did counseling work with teens, adults and couples spoke from the angle of helping people with mental illness. Another church member talked about grief, and a mother and father of a child with ADHD spoke about their experience. It was surreal to me to be up on that stage with people, all Christians, and talk about how Jesus spoke to them in their struggles, what it meant to join mental health and faith.

It was a highly-attended service, and a week or so later, the mother of the person who killed themselves, wrote a letter to the editor of the town newspaper — where I was working at the time, funny enough — saying she was elated that the church was talking about these issues and providing a space for people to feel safe and comfortable with their struggles.

And it all happened on a Sunday morning.

I fought for the event to happen on a Sunday morning because, as I’ve argued already in this piece, change in churches often starts on Sundays. It starts when the pastor makes a stand or allows someone to speak about an issue that’s bubbling under the surface. Maybe it shouldn’t have to be that way in churches — I think it’s a result of the celebrity complex around pastors in the Christian world, something that’s been in place for centuries — but a full examination of that can be done another time.

A Grand Application

I wish I could say that churches around town heard about what we did and hosted their own panels or special Sundays, reaching everyone with the gospel of Jesus applied to mental illness: that God loves you no matter your mental state, that His mercy and grace is not stopped at the door of your chemically-imbalanced brain. Maybe they did happen and I just never heard about it; despite being a journalist, I’m often late to news, even within my own family. 

It would make my soul soar if churches around the country would have similar Sundays, but not every church is equipped for such a situation. Maybe they don’t have enough members willing to share openly about their struggles, and that’s fine. But, as I said before, I firmly believe that the path to killing stigma and fear around talking about mental health disorders in Christian churches starts on Sundays. So here’s a few options for getting there.

Preach a sermon about mental health. The Bible is chock full of passages where individuals’ mental health is God’s focus and the writer’s attention: Elijah in 1 Kings 19, David at multiple points throughout the Psalms, Job in his eponymous book. So even sticking to preaching the Bible verse-by-verse can be faithfully done while examining mental health and the Christian life.

Or you could take a more holistic approach to the topic. It could be on an educational focus, pointing to the number of people struggling with mental health issues in both the church and the world and point to Jesus’ focus on people’s health as part of his earthly ministry. It could be from a theological perspective, focusing on how God’s love for His children is not conditioned on their mental health or ability to comprehend things like “normal” people. It could be from a counseling perspective, pointing to the resources available to those who struggle with mental health and praising those involved for their follow-through in “loving the least of these,” as Jesus said in Matthew 25. 

Those with mental health issues often feel like “the least of these” in church. Starting on Sunday with a sermon is a great kick-off point.

Host a mental health expert. That LifeWay Research study from earlier provides more interesting insights into the church’s role in caring for those with mental illnesses. According to the responses, just 14 percent of pastors said they had a counselor on staff skilled in mental illness and 13 percent provided training for leaders to identify symptoms of mental illness. Individuals with acute mental illness strongly encouraged both — 53 percent said local churches should provide training for the church to understand mental illness and 42 percent encouraged having a counselor on staff skilled in mental illness.

Since the church is, according to this survey, inadequately addressing mental health with skilled education, it might be good for churches with fewer resources — like not having enough people, time and money — to host a mental health expert for a Sunday morning conversation or message about how church members can spot mental illness symptoms or offer explanations for how specific disorders affect the brain and emotional and mental state. It might cost some money — or there may already be a counselor or psychologist in your congregation — but it would be totally worth it.

Provide resources or a “people-to-call” list. This one is pretty easy. Most churches have a bulletin board or pamphlet rack where important information can be placed for people to peruse or pick up at their convenience. Sliding brochures from the local mental health clinic, business cards of the closest Christian counselor or a list of Bible verses to consider when dealing with a mental health crisis is a simple way to start addressing the issue. Depending on where you are, it might take a little time and research, but again, it would be totally worth it.

Host a Sunday school class with a book study. The LifeWay survey showed that 44 percent of individuals with acute mental illness surveyed said local churches should “offer topical seminars on depression or anxiety,” but just 19 percent of pastors said their churches do this. There are beginning to be more books and offerings for Christians struggling with mental health disorders or people who love them. Hit up Google or search Amazon for a highly-rated book or trusted author who’s explored this topic and let it guide a Sunday school class for a few weeks. That will give people a smaller group atmosphere to dissect the topics and discuss things in a more manageable group. Again, might cost some money, but totally worth it.

It Starts Internally

According to the LifeWay survey, 27 percent of pastors said they church had a plan for supporting families of the mentally ill.

We have plans for helping a new mother get a pasta on Thursdays and a casserole on Fridays. We have plans for helping a family move homes. We have a plan for making sure the church van key is passed around properly. We have a plan for paying the bills on time. The least we can do is make a plan for supporting those struggling with mental health.

But most importantly, you’ve got to talk about it, and it starts from within.

As already stated, the “world” has done an amazing job at breaking down the stigma around mental illness. Celebrities have been open about the times they’ve been hospitalized for extreme stress or suicidal thoughts, and whole songs and films explore the effects of severe mental illness. The least we can do is start talking about it.

Fifty-nine percent of individuals with acute mental illness said local churches should talk about mental health openly so the topic isn’t taboo, according to the LifeWay survey. That is where we should start. I really believe that, just like we talk about the Gospel, about baptism, about abortion, about feeding the poor, we should be talking about mental health.

Of individuals with acute mental illness, how people in their church responded to their mental health affected them — 8 percent stopped attending church altogether, 5 percent couldn’t find a church to attend and 10 percent changed churches. That means 23 percent of those with mental health disorders had their church attendance pattern — and with it their sense of community, commitment to a local body and ability to explore Jesus in a large group — alter, no doubt significantly in some cases.

We’ve got to do better. And it starts by talking.

Fire Consuming Water: Mental Health Struggles Among God’s Faithful in the Bible

I’m in a strange season of life because I’m trying to figure out what I think about the Bible. And as I was beginning to ponder how I was going to write this essay, a palpable truth struck me.

The Bible is both inherently ancient and applicably modern. It’s unavoidably diverse and yet surprising whole. It’s at once both distant and strange while approachable and present.

I don’t know if it was written that way, but it ended up being that way. Or maybe it’s not the Bible itself, but the stories it tells, the people it features, the ones that God put in a place to be an example, whether good or bad, for us here in the future, 2,000-plus years after its central event.

It’s with this new appreciation that I explore something very special and personal to me: mental health and its place in the Bible. It’s there. The words “depression” and “anxiety” are either completely absent or incredibly rare, and there’s nothing explicitly diagnosed as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, though those disorders certainly exist in biblical times.

But despite the absence of certain terminology, I strongly believe that the Bible shows us we are not alone in our struggles of the mind, and that because of that, we are not alone.

Running for Your Life

Elijah had just won a major victory for God.

There was a severe famine in Samaria, which is now central Palestine. Jesus cited Samaria in his final words to the disciples, telling them to share the good news in Jerusalem, Judea and all Samaria (Matthew 28:19). Elijah was sent to show the power of God to Ahab, the king of Israel. Ahab had a death warrant out for Elijah — in 1 Kings 18, where this story starts, the king refers to the prophet as the “troubler of Israel” (v. 17). 

Elijah says, in my paraphrase, “Hey Ahab, you’ve caused all the trouble because you stopped following God. I’m gonna show you. Get everybody in the land, including the prophets of Baal and Asherah, to go to Mount Carmel.”

At Mount Carmel, Elijah speaks to the people, telling them they need to choose between God and Baal. To prove God is supreme, Elijah and the prophets of Baal each take a bull and set it ready for sacrifice. Elijah instructed the prophets to call down fire to consume the animal.

From morning to noon, the text says, and past that, the prophets called for Baal to come down. Verse 26 says they “limped around the altar that they had made.” I guess they either wore themselves out or it was some kind of special dance. Baal was not impressed or had something else going on, as Elijah mocked them, “Cry aloud, for he is a god. Either he is music, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened” (v. 27). Sarcasm from a man of God! I love it.

No fire came.

Elijah rebuilt the altar that had been town down, did some special stuff and called on God. Fire came down from heaven, consumed the offering and the wood, stones and dust around it and water poured in a surrounding trench. Fire consumed water. That’s not normal.

All the people of Israel, the text says, seeing this, fell on their faces and worshiped God. Elijah called for the people to stop the prophets of Baal, numbered at 450. The latter half of v. 40 says, “And they seized them. And Elijah brought them down to the brook Kishon and slaughtered them there.”

All this happened, at least in the text of 1 Kings, after Elijah raised a kid from the dead in chapter 17, by the way.

After this intense display by God, the boldness to kill all these prophets himself, Elijah is confronted with some bad news. Ticked off by the death of her prophets, Queen Jezebel sent a message to Elijah: “So may the gods do to me and more also, if I do not make your life as the life of one of them by this time tomorrow” (1 Kings 19:2).

No big, right? He had just raised someone from the dead and killed a ton of people after seeing God rain down fire from the sky that consumed water. But a death threat isn’t something most people take lightly.

“Then (Elijah) was afraid, and he arose and ran for his life and came to Beersheba, which belongs to Judah, and left his servant there. But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness and came and sat down under a broom tree. And he asked that he might die, saying, ‘It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers” (1 Kings 19:3-4).

I don’t know how much time there was between these two events, between the killing of the prophets and the asking God to kill him. But Elijah became suicidal. He didn’t want to live anymore. Whether it was depression or stress or anxiety or fear, Elijah wanted to die.

And it doesn’t really make sense on the surface, right? From the far-removed standpoint we hold as readers of the text, Elijah has plenty of reason to not be afraid in light of Jezebel’s threat. He’s seen God do amazing things, many of them through his own hands. Why would Elijah be afraid and suicidal?

I’m not 100 percent sure. But he was.

Tears for Food

David, king of Israel, forerunner of the Christ, “man after God’s own heart,” spilled a lot of his guts throughout the psalms. 

He writes about his response to his adultery with Bathsheba, the blessings of being one of God’s people, the greatness of God’s words and so much more. But his mental state is also a common thread. 

Psalm 38 is a good example — “I am utterly bowed down and prostrate; all the day I go about mourning. For my sides are filled with burning, and there is no soundness in my flesh. I am feeble and crushed; I groan because of the tumult of my heart” (v. 6-8). 

I don’t know how else you describe “tumult of the heart” but some kind of serious depression or grief. David indicates early in the psalm, v. 3, that his life seems to have disappeared from him “because of my sin.”

But I want to focus on a psalm that’s not by David, but instead is written by one of the sons of Korah, who wrote many of the psalms. 

“My tears have been my food day and night, while they say to me all the day long, ‘Where is your God?’” (v. 3). “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me?” (v. 5). 

The two verbs in v. 5 are wattehemî and tištōwhahî. Respectively, they mean “to murmur, growl, roar, be boisterous” and “to bow, be bowed down, crouch” in their root forms. The soul here for the author is both discontent and sorrowful. Both verbs are inherently active, visible expressions used to describe the soul. If this isn’t depression, I don’t know what is. 

The author continues by saying that God has forgotten him and he goes on mourning “because of the oppression of the enemy” (v. 9). He stays cast down.

In Psalm 55, with enemies at his door, David cries out, “My heart is in anguish within me; the terrors of death have fallen upon me. Fear and trembling come upon me, and horror overwhelms me” (v. 4-5). 

The examples go on and on.

Sweat Like Blood

To me, perhaps the most notable example of mental health, or lack thereof, in the Bible is our Savior’s.

Three of the gospel accounts — Matthew, Mark and Luke — describe the Messiah’s mental state prior to his arrest, prior to his death. Jesus, asking God to take away this burden, is, in the varying accounts, “sorrowful and troubled” (Matthew 26:37), “in agony” (Luke 22:44) and “greatly distressed and troubled” (Mark 14:33). In the latter account, Jesus tells Peter, James and John that his “soul is very sorrowful, even to death” (v. 34). 

I’m going to key in on the Luke account, because it includes a detail that I love. The Greek agonia is described by Thayer’s Greek Lexicon as “of severe mental struggles and emotions”.

All of the adjectives and adverbs that the gospel writers used are pretty indicative of mental struggles. But it’s Luke, the physician, and his description of Jesus’ physical state that caught my eye when I read this passage.

“And being in agony, he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground (v. 44).

There’s a rare medical condition called hematidrosis, so rare that “only a few handfuls of hematidrosis cases were confirmed in medical studies in the 20th century.” WebMD’s article continues:

“Doctors don’t know exactly what triggers hematidrosis, in part because it’s so rare. They think it could be related to your body’s ‘fight or flight’ response.

Tiny blood vessels in the skin break open. The blood inside them may get squeezed out through sweat glands, or there might be unusual little pockets within the structure of your skin. These could collect the blood and let it leak into follicles (where the hair grows) or on to the skin’s surface.”

How is it caused? Most reports indicate it has to do with severe stress. Pair Jesus’ mental state, according to the gospel writers, with the blood sweat — of course it’s referenced by Luke the doctor — and you have a pretty severe case of mental illness, at least shown here.

Jesus showcasing severe mental discomfort and stress should be comforting to us. After all, as the writer of Hebrews argues, that’s one of the reasons we can trust Him.

“Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:14-16).

Theologians have debated over whether or not Jesus was actually anxious. After all, He was the one who said there was no need to be anxious, but “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33). Was He disobeying His own instruction?

That’s a theological debate for another day, but here’s my answer: I doubt it. At the very least, He was experiencing what mankind experienced so He could sympathize with our weaknesses. He was being human.

We’re Not Alone

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, approximately 1 in 5 adults in the United States, accounting for around 46.6 million people, experience mental illness of some shape every year, and 1 in 25 adults experience a sever mental illness “that substantially interferes with or limits one of more major life activities” every year.

And that’s just what’s discovered, and that’s just America, and that’s just adults.

One of the many beauties of the Bible is that it tells a very human story. It’s not a book that lifts itself beyond our humanity and our circumstances, our realities and our weaknesses. It quashes the myth that, to be Christians, we must be mentally well every minute of every day. It kills the idea that good Christians are free from mental illness.

After all, look at the people spotlighted. They were men who knew well the greatness of God, the love of God, the amazing things He had done, what He as capable of, men God worked through to do miracles. Yet they still struggled. Elijah was suicidal. David was depressed. Jesus was anxious. The Bible tells us that we’re not alone, that three of the most faithful men in history struggled with mental health issues. 

It was like fire consuming water. 

Let’s return to 1 Kings 18 for a minute. Elijah was building his altar for the sacrifice. Verse 32 records that he made a trench around the altar, “about as great as would contain two seahs of seed.” A “seah” is seven quarts or 7.3 liters. So imagine the volume of seven-and-a-half two-liter bottles of soda, plus a little more. That’s how much water the trench could hold.

If that doesn’t seem like a lot to you, try drinking a two liter of water quickly.

Elijah instructs the crowd to fill four jars of water and pour it on the offering and the wood on the altar. They did it, and then repeated the exercise twice. After the third time, v. 35 says, “the water ran around the altar and filled the trench also with water.” 

You would think that faith in God would quench every worry and fear that would lead to suicidal thoughts, depression and sweat drops made of blood.

But no. In some moments, the fire is too strong to be quenched, and the water is lapped up. 

We should not be ashamed if we ever feel that way. It’s not the end.

He Is There: Why You’re Not Alone in Your Mental Health Struggles

Throughout the Old Testament, God is shown to be a God who knows.

His omniscience is one of His most commonly spoken attributes. “God knows what you’re going through.” “God knows what’s going to happen.” “God only knows what I’d be without you.” OK, maybe that last one was a Beach Boys lyric, but it fits. It’s God’s omniscience that we see proven over and over again, 

My favorite case of this is how Israel asks for a king. The story is found in 1 Samuel 8, when the elders of Israel asked Samuel the prophet to give them a king. Samuel is a little peeved, but when he speaks to God, God allows it. 

“Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them,” God says in v. 7. In v. 9, He continues, “Now then, listen to their voice; only — you shall solemnly warn them, and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.”

This is a fulfillment of what God had said in Deuteronomy: “When you have come into the land that the LORD your God is giving you, and have taken possession of it and settled in it, and you say, ‘I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are around me,’ you may indeed set over you a king whom the LORD your God will choose” (17:14-15a). 

God knew.

Just like God knows your struggle with mental illness. He may seem far away. I certainly feel that way many times, wondering why in the world God would leave me here on earth like this, crippled by a mind that doesn’t quite work right. But He is there. I have to believe He is there, or else this is all pointless.

But it’s not a blind faith. Just look at how God takes care of His people.

Jesus the Miracle Worker

Jesus’ earthly ministry, in retrospect, seems to be a lot about healing people of worldly diseases. A list of his miracles would be incomplete without healing the son of the nobleman (John 4:46-47), casting out an unclean spirit (Mark 1:23-28), curing Peter’s mother-in-law of a fever (Mark 1:30-31), healing a leper (Mark 1:40-45), healing the centurion’s servant (Matthew 8:5-13), rising the widow’s son from the dead (Luke 7:11-18) and raising the ruler’s daughter from the dead (Matthew 9:18-26). And that’s just a small sampling of the many miracles that Jesus performed.

This is evidence of Jesus’ supernatural powers. In this age of reason and academics — both of which are to be praised at times — the miraculous supernatural part of Jesus may get the short end. But it’s evidence of His God-ness or, if you don’t buy into the whole Trinity thing, that God blessed him to perform mighty works in God’s name.

What these stories show, and Jesus’ overall compassion for the ill and needy, is the Father’s heart for those who are sick. Whatever form that sickness takes, the physical embodiment of God on earth stopped to take care of those who needed assistance. And there’s a good chance there were many more than we have recorded. John famously wrote that “Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book” (John 20:30).

It’s near-impossible today to 100 percent accurately attribute a healing to a miracle performed by God. The body created by God and its self-healing ability is so fascinating and intricate and powerful in and of itself, doctors just get better and better at what they do and new medicines can do amazing things. But if Jesus cared about people’s physical health on earth, it’s at the very least likely, to me, that He still cares about our health, extending beyond the physical to the mental and more.

The Spiritual Healer

After one of His miracles, Jesus was walking along the road when He spotted Matthew, a tax collector. Jesus called the man to follow Him, and Matthew did.

“And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?’ But when he heard this, he said, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I come to call not the righteous but sinners’” (Matthew 9:10-13).

Aside from being one of my favorite gospel passages, this exchange shows why Jesus came to earth in the first place. He equated spiritual lostness — being a “sinner” — with being physically sick. The Greek word iastros is used, meaning “physician.” It’s the same label applied to Luke, the author of the gospel bearing his name and the book of Acts, in Colossians 4:14. 

In this way, we see Jesus explaining the problem of spiritual lostness in medical terms, something they could understand. Being without salvation, without righteousness, was a sickness that needed a cure. And doctors, those who can provide that healing, do no good by hanging out with those who were well. They need to be among those who are sick. 

Those of us who struggle with mental illness are sick. It’s a reality we can’t escape. It’s just a thing. But Jesus was willing to be seen and dine with those who were spiritually sick, as well as physically sick.

Cake and Water

Another one of my favorite Bible stories is that of Elijah in 1 Kings 19. After defeating the prophets of Baal in the showdown of a lifetime and then killing all 450 of them by a river (read 1 Kings 18 for that Lord of the Rings-worthy tale), Queen Jezebel of Israel called for Elijah’s head. Fleeing a day’s journey into the wilderness, 1 Kings 19 records, Elijah asks that God takes away his life. Lying under a broom tree he falls asleep. Verses 5b-9 record:

“Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, ‘Get up and eat.’ He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again. The angel of the Lord came a second time, touched him, and said, ‘Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.’ He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God. At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there.”

In the depth of incredible mental and emotional distress, God provided respite and restoration for Elijah. He didn’t remove the situation, didn’t take away the feelings or thoughts. He simply provided some food and drink. 

I feel like there’s something incredibly symbolic about this. Elijah wanted to die. He wanted to be taken away. He says in v. 4, “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” The Hebrew word for “enough” was rāb. In other places, it’s translated as “so great,” “plenty” and “too much.” Elijah had reached a breaking point and was ready to give it all up. But God met Him in this moment. 

The text does not say the “cake” is bread. For his sake, I hope it was one of my mom’s chocolate cinnamon fudge cakes, because those things are good. But God, though “the angel of the LORD,” provided him sustenance for the journey ahead. 

Finding Rest

This is not to say that every time you are in emotional or mental distress God will meet you with a cake and a jar of water out of nowhere. That’s just a part of Elijah’s story, and everything that happens to Him cannot be applied universally. But in these stories, in the Old and New Testaments, we see the character of God shine forth to those in need of healing, to those who are sick, to those who are hurting. 

Who is to say that same character, that same compassion, does not shine forth to us today? We may not always see it, we may not always know it, but I bet you it is there. 

He’s in the hand that reaches out to provide a meal, a warm hug, a kind word. Speaking of the Son of Man coming into his glory in later times, Jesus says of those who helped the needy, “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40).

He’s in the person who ditches their whole schedule to pray for you or send you a note or play a game with you to distract you. Jesus says to His disciples, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:12-13).

He’s in the one who doesn’t reject you in your weirdness or anguish or naïveté. “Then little children were being brought to him in order that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples spoke sternly to those who brought them; but Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.’ And he laid his hands on them and went on his way” (Matthew 19:13-15).

This is the God on whom you can rely, in your darkest hour of sadness, emotional turmoil and heartache. You may not see Him, you may not feel Him, but I promise you He is there. His character eliminates any other possibility.

Just ask.

A Sanctuary for Hurt: Why the Church Should Tackle Mental Health at All

Most public Christians would tell you up front that they’re not Jesus, they’re not saints (in the common slang-ish use of the word). They’re simply people who believe in a God and think He saved them.

It’s true: We’re sinners saved by grace.

That kind of faith — or at least philosophy, or way of thinking — has led Christians to do a lot of things over the years. It’s encouraged people to fight wars, colonize nations, keep slaves, free slaves, start businesses, save lives, commit crimes, teach, help, donate money, donate time, picket, protest, pander and argue on social media till their fingers are sore.

Why it’s led people to do those things — and why some of those bad things happened — is for another time, but built into Christianity and many, if not all, religions is this idea that what you think or believe spurs you to action. The faith/religion/commitment becomes a motivating force for some kind of activism. 

Yes, activism. Though the term is usually allocated to special interest groups, nonprofits or political parties, we all participate in some form of activism — unless you’re a hermit. But even that in itself is activism. 

You are an activist, in the purest sense of the word, for some cause. Maybe it’s your kids’ academic excellence. Maybe it’s to get your friends more involved in throwing axes for fun. Maybe it’s to get your company to start stocking Reese’s Fast Break bars in the vending machine. If you have something you care about and you advocate for it openly, on a large scale or in a small setting you are an activist.

Christians have been activists for various things over the years, and as we’ve said, sometimes for good things and sometimes for bad. Something that’s often fallen by the wayside in this category is mental health.

That’s not to say that all Christians today don’t care about mental health. Some pastors regularly speak on the topic, and books have been written that tackle the subject from a spiritual and psychological angle. Authors and speakers share their personal stories of depression and anxiety, faith and doubt, fear and failure, relief and rest.

All that is much needed. 

If you’re reading this essay, odds are you already agree with that statement. But if you don’t, or you need a supplementary push for increasing awareness in your church or helping your Christian friends understand, this is for you. 

Because if God cared about it, we should too.

A Matter of Consistency

Many churches and parachurch organizations have made their name on the basis of their charitable works. 

Samaritan’s Purse, which defines itself as a “nondenominational Christian organization,” has helped more than 39,000 families impacted by U.S. natural disasters since 1998 and has delivered more than 157 million shoebox gifts to children in more than 160 countries and territories around the world since 1993, according to the agency’s website

World Vision, a self-described “global Christian humanitarian organization,” says it helps more than four million children in nearly 100 countries with education and healthcare and brought clean water to 3.2 million people in 2017. 

On a much more local level, Cookson Hills Christian School in Kansas, Oklahoma — yes, a city called Kansas in the state of Oklahoma — provides “home, school and therapy for kids who are at-risk” for little to no cost. The organization states that contributions from families of the children in its care amount for less than 1 percent of their total costs. The school cares for up to 120 children at a time.

There’s a good chance your local church does work like this. The church I went to for middle and high school, Turner’s Chapel in Sanford, N.C., had several opportunities for people to serve and the church to make an impact. Four times a year, a group from the church served a meal to homeless and low-income individuals on Saturdays, and we provided items to the meal’s hosting agency for its food pantry year-round. Once a year, a group from the church goes to a deaf village in Jamaica to do light construction and maintenance work on buildings. Those were just the publicized things — there’s no telling how many little bits of assistance here and there were provided to needy members on a weekly basis.

That’s the modus operandi of most local churches. Along with giving the Gospel, churches seek to meet earthly needs of those, well, in need. The prayer lists are regularly stocked with sick members, relatives and friends, along with those who have lost jobs, had babies and are moving. 

That’s what living out being followers of Jesus looks like. More on that in a minute.

It’s in the church’s DNA to extend themselves for those hurting and struggling. What should make mental health any different? How inconsistent would we be if we simply ignored someone’s severe depression, but put another person’s broken leg on the prayer list? Why shouldn’t we seek to offer meals to the one whose anxiety has kept them in bed for days? Why shouldn’t we aim to provide house-cleaning help to the person whose OCD has mentally paralyzed them?

If we’re aiming to be a consistent presence in this world, the church must care about mental health.

Following the Savior’s Lead

It’s amazing how often Jesus and the other Bible writers spoke about mental concerns. 

Most of us will hear passages and apply them to ourselves and our everyday stressors — the kids, the mortgage, the in-laws. Those stresses are real and should be addressed. But individuals with mental health disorders face those situations constantly, often over things you’d never guess.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells the audience to “not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” He says that God knows those in the audience needs all those things. 

Jesus, it seems, was aware of His audience’s needs and stresses. He didn’t ignore their mental state and their worries. He addressed them, spoke directly to them — “But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33). What that actually means practically is certainly worth discussing, but at the very least, we can see that Jesus cared for His follower’s concerns and what weighed them down.

Providing some exhortations to the church in Philippi, Paul writes, “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7). Paul, who spent time with the Savior and spoke with Him regularly, provides room for people who are worrying to express their fears and offered them some help. 

He’s not saying “stop worrying.” He’s saying, “Hey, there is no literal foundation for your worrying. And God doesn’t promise to take away that worrying feeling, he’ll just replace it with something else.” I don’t think Paul is excluding the possibility of mental health disorders here. I think he’s just acknowledging that worry is there, and there’s help there. Worry and anxiety are not the double-edged sword of doubt that James speaks of.

In writing about individuals’ relationship with God, Peter exhorts the elders to be humble. He adds, “Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7). I was once going to write a book on 1 Peter 5:6-7 — I’ve started probably 30 books over my lifetime and only finished one — because there’s so much packed in there theologically and about my own life. The driving force was that any anxiety you have, I was going to write, can be cast on God because of His care.

The root Greek for “cast” there is epiriptó. One of the stems, rhiptó, is used to describe Judas ditching the pieces of silver given him for betraying Jesus (Matthew 27:5). Just like Judas threw away the pieces of silver, like a burden to his guilty soul, we can cast our anxiety on Jesus, recklessly, lifting a weight and placing it somewhere else. 

I just compared Judas Iscariot to casting anxieties on God. Isn’t the Bible amazing?

Jesus and His followers, those who wrote in the Bible, spent time addressing mental health and how we think about things. For us to not do so is to fail to follow in their footsteps.

Close Ties to the Spiritual

The Bible never instructs its readers, to my knowledge at least, to “feel” a certain way. 

When I realized that, it was a great lift to my soul. But as I considered the Bible, and how Jesus instructed His disciples, and how the early church leaders spoke to the body of Christ, and even how God spoke to the Israelites through the prophets, it was clear to me that the instruction through the ages was about thinking.

One of Paul’s keystone instructions in Philippians 4 deals with this exactly: “…whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (v. 8). Paul tells the Corinthian church that he and those in his ministry are marked by “tak(ing) every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5). He writes to the Colossians, “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:2-3).

There is much instruction from Scripture that revolves around thinking properly. We often talk in the church about the “Christian worldview,” which is a way and pattern of thinking. Our thoughts are tied so closely to our spiritual lives, and our thoughts are where mental illnesses live.

Depression and anxiety affects my emotions, for sure, but they also affect my thoughts. They make me think things that are not true. They can even stop my thinking, clog up the thought process with fear and panic. They lead to obsession over thoughts that don’t make sense, take up precious minutes and hours of my day with their tight grip. Thus, it harms my spiritual life.

We are adamant, at least in our ideals, to eliminate things that distract us from Jesus, right? Any sin we commit is a barrier between us and God, and to truly have communion with Him, we must kill sin. 

My mental health is a barrier between me and God. That doesn’t mean it’s sinful. That just means it’s a barrier. So ideally, we’d deal with it with the same level of fervor we deal with sin. 

A Sanctuary

There’s a song by the band Paradise Fears called “Sanctuary.” There’s been lots of times in my life when the lyrics have spoken to me. It’s not a Christian song, but it might as well be the cry of someone begging for a place to call home.

“So go ahead and lie to yourself, and pretend that you’re a ray of light when you’re a broken candle. You keep in time with yourself — when did it all start moving way too fast for you to handle? You’re short on breath and heavy on time…It’s so dark in the room, and the ceilings are high. You know the feeling — you’ve been here before. It’s a broken old pew, and it’s an echoing cry.”

I’ve been there, many times before. The song rings true to me again now as I write these words. You end up in a broken place. You’ve been lying to yourself, saying everything’s OK, but deep down, you’re hurt. You’re struggling.

You need a place to go, a place to heal, a place to be yourself, open and free. Far too often for people with mental health disorders, the church has not been that place.

Shouldn’t it be the opposite? What did Jesus say about Him spending time with the sinners and tax collectors? “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick” (Matthew 9:12). Jesus came to earth, and exists still today, to provide comfort to those who are needy. 

What did He say to those who are exhausted? “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).

While on Earth, Jesus set Himself up as a comfort and a rest for people, even those who are young and naive. What did He say about the children who wanted to be with Him? “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs” (Mark 10:14). 

Jesus is a welcomer, not a rejecter; a lover, not a fighter; a Good Samaritan, not a Levite passing by on the other side of the road. Shouldn’t His house be the place where we can find healing and rest? We may not come to church to be cured of our mental illnesses, but we can and should come to find understanding, rest and love. 

A sanctuary.

Chipping Away: Why the Mental Health of Teenagers is Vital, and the Church Needs to Step Up

My personal mental health problems, namely anxiety and depression, started in my teens, and  I’m not alone in that.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 20 percent of youth ages 13-18 live with a mental health condition, and 50 percent of all lifetime cases of mental illness begin by age 14. Suicide is the third leading cause of death in youth ages 10-24, and 70 percent of youth in state and local juvenile justice systems have a mental illness.

The mental health of teenagers recently caught attention in light of the Netflix show 13 Reasons Why, which graphically portrayed the suicide of a high school girl character who turned to self-harm as a result of a poor life at school. A recent study said there were more than 195 more suicides by kids 10-17 than would have been expected in the nine months following the show’s March 2017 release.

Researchers said they can’t prove the show is why the jump occurred, but they argued that the graphic portrayal of the act can be a spur for kids considering suicide.

This is not a piece where I’m determined to level 13 Reasons Why, to say that it’s bad for teen mental health. In fact, another study (note: it was commissioned by Netflix) showed that 58 percent of teen viewers reported talking to their parents about the show and the issues it raised, while 51 percent stated they apologized to someone for how they treated them after watching it. So I’m far from qualified in evaluating the show’s effect on teen mental health — mostly because I haven’t watched it myself.

But 13 Reasons Why has at least done one thing, whether you think it is worth watching or harm’s teen mental health. It’s started the conversation over what’s helpful and what’s harmful. And that is always a good thing, because America’s teens, and teens around the world, need more than what they’re getting, particularly from Christians.

The Precarious State Teenagers Live In

The world has changed a lot from when I was a teenager. The year I turned 18, 2010, was very different. Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was the top new album, Toy Story 3 the highest grossing movie, and Barack Obama was president. Man, it seems so long ago.

But as a former teenager myself — quite recently, in fact — and through my conversations with teens over the last few years, I’ve lived and heard what it’s been like to be a teenager in the 21st century and to deal with all the pressures that come with that age group.

Teenagers nowadays — and maybe always, to be fair — feel that they are not respected as much as adults and not loved as much as little kids. They feel that they are asked to be adults in many ways, but are not given the same level of respect and the same voice as adults. They go to school, have part-time jobs, take care of siblings and try to have social lives simultaneously. Adults may spend their time on specific things quite differently, but the amount of commitments is similar. 

Many teens fall in one of two categories: living under some level of pressure from their parents’ expectations, or living without one or both birth parents. Both situations cause stress and anxiety from a young age, with other mental illnesses affecting them depending on their circumstances. The 69 percent of children under age 18 living with both parents — a decrease from the 88 percent in 1960, by the way — will often find themselves struggling to meet standards set for them, whether in the classroom or on the sports field. The 23 percent of children living with a single mother — an increase from 8 percent in 1960 — and 4 percent living with just their father are missing a parental figure and thus a significant part of their development (statistics here).

Of course, it’s near impossible to accurately measure how teens many feel high expectations from home and how that affects their lives and academic performance, but there’s enough anecdotal evidence to prove it’s a significant problem, particularly among communities where an ethnic or socioeconomic culture adds pressure

Therein lies another problem facing teenagers and their mental health. Remember how that 13 Reasons Why study said the show helped some talk about the issues presented? The same study stated that 80 percent of adolescent and young-adult viewers said others their age dealt with similar issues to those in the series, and younger teens and teens with higher levels of social anxiety said they felt more comfortable talking about the topics present in 13 Reasons Why with parents, peers and other supportive adults after watching the show.

There’s a stigma wrapped around mental health, particularly depression and anxiety. Unlike some diseases, even mental illnesses, things like depression and anxiety are not bodily visible, but take a lot of work to keep hidden. A lot of teens seem to have not learned how to control their emotions, and that’s not necessarily their fault. They’re learning who they are, and they’ll often learn through experience how to control their emotions. But in a world where looking good, talking good and living good are prized above all else, anything that gets in the way of that is scary for a teenager. They want to be prized by their peers, and anything that makes them stand out or be different for any negative reason — like being sad all the time or coming to school with cuts on their wrists or arms — is something to be hidden.

Adults are no different, really. We all put on faces when we go out in public, desiring for our colleagues and friends to see us as the put-together person we desire to show. Most of the time, we even want to see ourselves that way. In my 26-and-a-half years of life, I’ve rarely met an adult who I could tell was totally and completely themselves the vast majority of the time. I’ve met one, a good friend of mine from college and even he, deep down, struggled with self-confidence from time-to-time.

Teenage-dom is a precarious state. Whether it’s the still-developing brain or the lack of life experiences, life is on a tightrope, a pendulum stuck in the middle, shifted up or down, back or forth, at a moment’s notice.

A Personal Matter

It’s in this environment that mental illness thrives. 

Struggles like anxiety disorders and clinical depression live for this scenario. Anxiety gets activated by the slightest uncertainty, with the mind beginning to race and rumble over the smallest worry. Early experiences with rejection or being left out can add substance to the feeling of depression — “Look what’s happened to me! Can you blame me for being depressed?”

I write this because I’ve been there. This has happened to me. The slightest uncertainty has sent me into a tailspin, wondering about the 50 different outcomes to a particular situation, which one is best, which one is worst, which one is most likely. 

Allow me to be nerdy for a second: It’s like Doctor Strange using the Time Stone to see the potential outcomes of the Avengers’ fight against Thanos, but he gets stuck in the time loop, preventing him from telling Iron Man and the Guardians of the Galaxy that there’s one way to win out of 14 million-plus. A remembrance of a specific time of rejection — either by an eighth-grade girl who didn’t want to dance with me or a place of employment going “another direction” with the opening — can kickstart a half-hour of unbreakable sadness.

Most people can shrug off those perfectly normal scenarios. But those of us with severe anxiety and depression try to avoid them like the plague because we know what they do to us. They cripple us. They lead us down a path we don’t want to go down, and most of the time we can’t help it or get out of it.

Last night — just under 12 hours before writing the first draft of this essay — I thought of rejection from multiple job interviews and another scenario where rejection was hurtful and got depressed, unable to have a good conversation with my wife and ultimately descending into an anxious state. I didn’t know how to get out of it because, no matter how hard you try, sometimes it’s impossible. And don’t tell me to “stop trying so hard.” I’ve done that too.

This is both a biological and sociological issue. We live in a society where mental health has either been put on the back burner, to be “talked about later,” or not discussed at all. And nowhere has this become more obvious than in schools, where America’s teens spend anywhere between 35-50 hours a week, depending on extracurricular activities.

According to the National Association of School Psychologists, the ratio of students per school psychologist was estimated to be 1,381:1 in the 2014-2015. That’s higher than the recommended ratio of 1,000:1 in general and 500-700:1 “when more comprehensive and preventive services are being provided.” Hiring personnel for public schools has become an increasingly significant political discussion, with legislation for funding such positions often reliant on the increasingly divisive political process. While I’m not going to take a political position on this — I recognize that state governments do not have a bottomless treasure chest full of money to spend on every needed thing — this shortage opens students to a significant portion of their week when they are either underserved or not served at all in the mental health arena. 

This is not necessarily the fault of the schools or the states that fund them. I simply believe this is a sign that we haven’t taken students’ mental health seriously enough. I think that’s changing, as more and more groups advocate for increasing mental health services for students and increased funding for related positions in schools. 

To take it seriously, we’ve got to start by listening to personal stories and see how mental health services can actually help people and create safe spaces for conversation and healing.

And the church is one of the best places to do that.

The Body of Christ as a Safe Space

You might think that a church youth group would be better than your average high school classroom. The kids are mostly, if not all, Christians, kind to one another, finding a home in the Lord’s house on Sunday and/or Wednesday nights.

While my youth group was fantastic, I brought my depression and anxiety into the room with me every time. That made common youth group experiences, like lock-ins and summer camp, a haven for anxiety-inducing moments and triggers for depression. Unfortunately, at the time, I didn’t know that’s what I was dealing with. 

Writing on why young people with anxiety and depression often don’t go to church, child and adolescent psychiatrist Dr. Steve Grcevich states, “To appreciate the struggles that teens might experience in attending worship services, participating in youth group, serving in outreach activities or going on mission trips, we need to recognize how attributes of mental conditions common to this population cause difficulty functioning in the environments where ministry takes place. We also need to see how the interaction of those attributes with common elements of church culture — our expectations for how people should act when we gather together — creates real barriers to church involvement for teens with mental illness.”

Dr. Grcevich lists seven reasons why it’s tougher for teens with mental health conditions to connect: stigma around mental health, social anxiety in certain situations, struggle with self-control, sensory processing issues, weak social communication skills, social isolation and even past experiences with church. 

I relate to those, but more in my college days with the student ministry I was involved in. I felt like social isolation was sometimes my only recourse for my straggling mind. For the crazy thoughts I had that didn’t make sense to me, so of course they wouldn’t make sense to others. For not feeling comfortable around girls because I still worried about how I’d be perceived by them. For not wanting to let others know I was doubting my faith because I felt I’d likely lose my position of leadership within the group and, even scarier, my place in the group as a whole. For not wanting to go out and share the gospel with people because making new friends, or at least acquainting myself with new people voluntarily, made me shiver in my boots.

It was in this environment that I did not find the body of Christ to be a safe space. I’m not totally blaming them. Christianity has historically lagged behind the “secular culture” in wrestling properly with problems, so why would mental health be any different? I’ve seen it on the bookshelves in stores recently, where new books claim to examine the Bible afresh with its diversity in thought and seeming contradictions, something “secular culture” has been doing for years.

It is vital, especially for the sake of our teenagers, both in and outside the church, that we become a safe space for those struggling with mental health issues. In the same way we seek to accommodate the elderly with wheelchairs and 12-year-old who broke his leg climbing a tree, we need to accommodate those struggling with mental injuries of any kind.

In today’s culture, some in the political sphere, or people leaning one way on the spectrum, mock the idea of “safe spaces” on college campuses or other places. These students need to deal with reality, they say, and accommodations for their little fears and worries is babying and coddling. 

Jesus babies us. Jesus coddles us. He meets us where we are, and while He does ask a lot of us, He’s willing to be the one who loves us as we are. We should be the same with those who are struggling with mental illness, inside the church and out.

Creating a Haven

How do we get there? Always the biggest question to ask when you’re suggesting a major shift in thinking, or working to consider something different. 

We have to be like Jesus. That seems to be the end goal, the operative framework. But what does that look like in helping teens with mental health issues in the church?

Welcome them in, warts and all. One of the most popular paintings of Jesus — or what white Christian America deemed as Jesus — is the Savior sitting with a group of children, one on His lap, another sitting nearby. Jesus is either teaching with an arm outstretched or has his hand on a child’s head in a gentle, fatherly manner. The paintings are probably inspired by the Savior’s words in Matthew 19:14 — “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.”

Having that attitude with teens with a mental illness — and all teens for that matter, but that’s for another time — is vital. It’s an attitude of not stopping someone because of any nerve they might get on or annoyance they bring or difficulty they have. It’s about welcoming them in and loving them the way Jesus did. They have enough difficulties on their own. Far be it from us in the church to give them another one by rejecting them.

Learn about mental health from professional sources. Paul’s method of ministry was remarkable: “I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them” (1 Corinthians 9:19). The original Greek word’s root, doloó, means to “bring into bondage, become a servant.” Paul said, “Hey, I’m going to turn myself into a slave to everyone, so I can preach the gospel to them.” He dedicated himself to being like others so he could relate to them.

The best example of this, to me at least, is when Paul preaches to the Areopagus in Athens, the center of Greek thought and academic discourse in the city. As Matthew Henry states in his commentary, “One discourse of this kind we had before to the rude idolaters of Lystra that deified the apostles (Acts 14:15); this recored here is to the more polite and refined idolaters at Athens, and an admirable discourse it is, and every way suited to his auditory and the design he had upon them.” 

Paul even went so far as to quote the Greek philosopher Epimenides and poet Aratus in v. 28 — “For ‘in him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’” Both of those lines were attributed to Zeus in Greek literature, but Paul, being an educated man and dedicated to reaching people for Jesus, used that writing to make a point that God really is not that far away, and that the gods the Greeks worshipped were false.

We don’t need to have master’s degrees in psychology, social work or counseling to be able to love and counsel teens who have mental illnesses. We simply need to look to Paul’s example. It is good for those working with high schoolers and other youth to learn more about any relevant mental health disorders — anxiety and depression are a good start — so that we can better understand them. Find reliable sources, both Christian and “secular.”

Open the conversation, publicly. I don’t know the split, but the teachings of Jesus recorded in the Bible seem to be half in private conversations and half in public messages. There’s the notable Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7. There’s the Upper Room Discourse in John 13-17.

I’m going to make a plug here that, when we speak about mental health to teens, we don’t limit the conversation or the scope to one-on-one interactions. The teens may feel more comfortable sharing their own stories and their own struggles in that smaller environment, but speaking about it in an open forum like youth group will help put them at ease that it’s OK for them to struggle and be a part of the group.

This extends to talking about it on Sundays in front of everybody as well. It is my firm belief that we won’t make significant progress on mental health in the church unless pastors begin making mental health a topic of Sunday sermons, or addressing it in the context of other messages. The church thing to do — at least it was for me growing up, and I’m sure it still happens — is to talk about the sermon during Sunday lunch. In today’s small group culture, the message is often the point of conversation during those weekly meetings. By having an open message on the topic on Sundays, we further the church’s awareness of the topic and stifle the stigma so often associated with mental health.

Chipping Away

I’ve worked with and around youth for years now, and having been a teenager myself pretty recently, I think I’ve got a decent idea about how they work.

There’s something they value a lot: commitment and consistency. I know because I failed at it myself.

I worked with a youth group at my old church for a couple years, helping out the youth pastor who was one of my best friends. He was a groomsman in my wedding and I was in his. 

He and his wife were about to move to South Carolina for him to attend seminary, so he announced he would be leaving the church at the end of the upcoming summer. It was a devastating conversation. The high schools seniors who had him as their youth pastor all four years were destroyed. One of them, who usually didn’t show a lot of extreme emotion, began to cry. 

Soon after that, my wife and I, who had just gotten married, left to go to another church. We didn’t really say much about it. 

When we’ve returned to that church on occasion, the bond that we had with them has felt strained, if not cut off entirely. High school kids are a lot more intuitive and smart than we often give them credit for. They know when things are going on, and they have feelings about those things. But like most people, they have to know you’re there for the long haul before they let you in. 

The relationship my friend had with them was so strong because he was committed. He went to their sporting events and music recitals. He went to their high school graduations. He would have them over to his apartment to hang out. He’d play video games online with them regularly. He was committed.

If you’re going to interact with youth at all and try to make a Christ-like impact — especially kids dealing with mental health disorders — you’ve got to be committed. You’ve got to show them, prove to them, that you’re going to be there for the long haul. You’ve got to, in a sense, chip away at the hard exterior to get to what’s underneath.

It takes time and effort. But that’s what Jesus did for you, right? It may have been one swing and He was in, or maybe He took little pokes until the shell cracked and He was in your life for good. He was able to do that because He lasted three years on earth, underwent every temptation known to man, and made it through all that without sin. Then He died the most horrendous death, in my mind, humanity has come up with.

The message of this piece is pretty simple: Be like Jesus when it comes to dealing with teens and their mental health, particularly in a church setting. Start chipping.

The Fact That Jesus ‘Reclined’ Means We’re Safe

You guys ever been in that situation when you’re with someone and you’re just completely uncomfortable?

I think of the scenarios where icebreakers were used to get to know people. First of all, I HATE icebreakers. I was an RA for a year in college and I acted like I liked them, but I couldn’t stand them. Second, I’m SUPER uncomfortable around new people. Today at work, I had to go up to random people on the street and ask them a question for tomorrow’s paper. So awkward for me.

In those situations, I don’t feel like letting my guard down with people. I have a hard time being myself. I wouldn’t sit on a sofa and prop my feet up, even if I was at my own home. The comfort level’s not there.

Jesus was never that way, and He still isn’t. Just look at the dinner table.

Carried to the Table

A good example of what “being at the table” with someone is seen in 2 Samuel 9. It’s the inspiration for the worship band Leeland’s fantastic song “Carried to the Table.”

David was king. He desired to “show…kindness” to anyone left from the “house of Saul” for “Jonathan’s sake” (v. 1). The only person left was Mephibosheth, one of Jonathan’s sons. David called for him, and Mephibosheth came before him and fell to the ground in homage. We’ll pick up the story in v. 7-10 and 13:

And David said to him, “Do not fear, for I will show you kindness for the sake of your father Jonathan, and I will restore to you all the land of Saul your father, and you shall eat at my table always.” And (Mephibosheth) paid homage and said, “What is your servant, that you should show regard for a dead dog such as I?”

Then the king called Ziba, Saul’s servant, and said to him, “All that belonged to Saul and to all his house I have given to your master’s grandson. And you and your sons and your servants shall till the land for him and shall bring in the produce, that your master’s grandson may have bread to eat. But Mephibosheth your master’s grandson shall always eat at my table…

So Mephibosheth lived in Jerusalem, for he ate always at the king’s table. Now he was lame in both feet.

David showed incredible mercy to the grandson of his enemy Saul, the man who had sworn to kill him, because of Mephibosheth’s relationship to Jonathan. Instead of clearing house for fear of being overthrown, David sought to be good to people, to “show the kindness of God” to them (v. 3).

And in came Mephibosheth, a crippled man, unable to move on his own. David not only welcomed him in, but allowed him to eat from his table and be part of the “family,” as it were.

Reclining by the Table

Matthew 9 shows off one of my favorite stories in Scripture. Jesus has just called Matthew, a tax collector, the worst of the worst for Jews, to be one of his disciples. Immediately after this, Jesus “reclined at table in the house” with “many tax collectors and sinners.” They “came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples” (v. 10).

Much has been written about the position of tax collectors in Israel. They were often Israelites who were working for the Roman government, collecting taxes, sometimes grossly unfairly. You need only look at the story of Zaccheus in Luke 19 to see how these tax collectors would often take advantage of the conquered Israelites.

Not only that, but there were “sinners” in the house as well. To be with tax collectors and sinners was a no-no, and the Pharisees let him know it. They asked the disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” (v. 11). Jesus heard what they said and responded. Verses 12-13:

But when (Jesus) heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.

First of all, mic drop.

Secondly, we see Jesus’ purpose for coming to earth. He didn’t come down, God in the form of man, to hang out with all the “righteous” people, those who thought they had it all together. He came down to be with those who needed Him most. The Great Physician went to be with the sickest patients.

Safe at the Table

Both of these stories have two things in common: being at a table and mercy being shown to those in need.

Eating at a table with friends and family is one of the most intimate things we can do — as long as cell phones are put away. We’re sharing food, stories, memories, laughs and more. We’re being together.

What Jesus did with the tax collectors and sinners, both of them stated as “reclining” at the table, was unheard of. It was a prophet, a man claiming to be God, not only eating with sinners but letting His guard down with them. Relaxing. The same thing with David and Mephibosheth. The new king of Israel, letting a lame man eat at his table and blessing him with a house and land and servants. For no reason other than mercy.

And that’s the second point. Neither Mephibosheth nor the sinners and tax collectors earned their way to reclining at the table, fellowshipping with kings. If anything, they were the opposite of worthy of that privilege. It was given to them because of mercy and grace.

In the same way, we are safe at the table. Jesus sees us and says, no matter our weaknesses, injuries and illnesses, whether literal or physical or mental or emotional or figurative or spiritual, “I will recline with you. You are safe here. I came for you.”

We’re safe there. Just as Mephibosheth was safe from being destitute and poor because of his illness and his relationship to David’s former enemy, just as the tax collectors and sinners were safe from judgement as Jesus’ hand for their unrighteousness, we are just as safe despite our sinfulness because of Jesus’ grace and mercy.

Lastly, some lyrics from “Carried to the Table” by Leeland:

Wounded and forsaken, I was shattered by the fall.
Broken and forgotten, feeling lost and all alone.
Summoned by the King, into the Master’s courts.
Lifted by the Savior and cradled in His arms.

I was carried to the table, seated where I don’t belong.
Carried to the table, swept away by His love.
And I don’t see my brokenness anymore
When I’m seated at the table of the Lord.