We All Know Someone.....
Updated: Jun 17, 2021
I watched a video a while back. It depicted a homeless man sitting in front of a church on a Sunday morning where people were entering for Sunday service. While some members did walked past pretending not to see him, most stopped and offered coffee, water, food, prayer, and some invited him to come in. When church started, the homeless man walked up the isle and took his place at the front of the church facing the congregation. He then remove his dirty coat, his dirty wig and fake dirty beard. It was actually the pastor of that church, dressed as a homeless man. He wanted to see how his congregation would act. Would they show Christ's love? How would they represent themselves and the church as Christians? Would they welcome him or shun him? He was pleased at most of their responses.
I saw other videos of other pastors and churches doing this test to their congregation as well, but with a mentally unstable person. Someone who was sitting, rocking, mumbling to himself. Some pastors depicted someone alone and crying to themselves. Some loudly crying out for help. Sadly, some of these churches didn't help. They feared the unstable person. Some even asked the ushers to call the police and have the "crazy" person removed. They didn't even try to talk to him to see if there was any ounce of conversation in him. These scenarios make it a bit more challenging when mental illness is involved. And yes, I do understand that they are most likely on private property, trespassing and I understand the security risk they can impose. But why should we treat mental illness as something different? Like it's leprosy or like it's highly contagious.
If someone was on the church steps with severe abdominal pain crying out in pain, wouldn't you help them? What about chest pain, migraines, asthma, cancer, or any medical illness that would cause them to cry out for help. You would expect them to cry out wouldn't you? You would expect them to ask for help so you can get them the medical attention that they so need. If your liver stops working, you can get medical attention to get it fixed. If you have a broken bone, you can get it set.
We don’t look down at people who get sick. We don’t second-guess the fact that they need medicine. We don’t tell them they need to pray harder. But what do we say to people with mental health challenges?
We’ve stigmatized mental health for far too long. But the truth is, your brain is just another organ. It’s not a sin to be sick. Your character isn’t defined by your chemistry. Your identity is not your illness. But for people who suffer from mental illness, society expects them to suffer in silence. People would rather abandon them and leave them to fend for themselves, rather than help them. Because it's easier and more peaceful for those living around it. Their lives are easier without them. Without the outbursts. Without the pain that the mental illness brings. Yes, it is very hard for those around them or living with them. But it is even harder for the one suffering.
I'll share something I read from C.S. Lewis, who once observed, “Mental pain is less dramatic than physical pain, but it is more common and also more hard to bear. The frequent attempt to conceal mental pain increases the burden: it is easier to say ‘My tooth is aching’ than to say ‘My heart is broken.’"
This rings so true today! It's easier to say 'I have a pain in my side' than to say 'I always feel like crying and I don't know why'" Or, how about 'my breathing problems have been terrible lately' vs 'I feel so much anger and it doesn't go away'. Here's another..."I have cancer and I need to start treatment', vs. 'I have a problem with hoarding and I need help'". Mental illness is a silent disease. When someone has a broken leg, you can clearly see it. In fact, the other day when I was at the grocery store, there was an elderly lady struggling to reach something on a shelf because of her dislocated shoulder. I immediately went to help her. That was very noticeable. Even a bad back or a stiff neck is apparent by the way they are walking, turning or standing. You can often see physical disabilities and it's easy to rush to help them. But what about those with a mental illness that doesn't show plain as day? Who rushes to help them?
Sadly, many people who suffer in silence turn to drugs or alcohol to numb their pain. The drugs/alcohol give them a happiness or feeling that they would never otherwise get. This obviously doesn't help their problem, in fact, it amplifies it and creates bigger problems.
Everyone is broken. It doesn't matter how together you portray your life to be, nobody is perfect. It’s a fact of life that’s not only clear from the pages of the Bible but also from the practical reality of what we see around us and in our own lives. Our bodies are broken. Our emotions are broken and guess what? Our minds are broken, too.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 1 in 5 Americans experiences mental illness, and nearly 10 million Americans live with a serious mental illness. That number probably increases every day. Every single one of us either knows someone with a mental illness, or experience it themselves. Yet, for some reason, the stigma surrounding mental illness is profoundly and deeply ingrained in our culture. It’s even in our churches.Stigmatizing mental illness isn’t just unkind, it can be lethal. Many people believe they have to hide their mental illnesses from their church families, who should be loving and accepting of them. That just makes the problem worse. It leads to despair. For some it leads to self-harm and thoughts of suicide.
So what can we do about this awful stigma? Well, for starters we can constantly tell stories of how God is using people with mental illnesses. You see, while the world doesn't see it, that fact is that in God’s garden, even broken trees bear fruit. If God only used perfect people, nothing would ever get done. Why? Because nobody is perfect. God uses all of us in spite of our struggles. To end the stigma of mental illness, we must educate people about mental illness and share that God does use them for His glory. I have them in my church. You have them in yours. Get to know them and let’s tell people their stories. They have some of the most powerful and life-changing testimonies.
Next, as leaders, we must be honest about our own mental health challenges. We struggle with mental health just like anyone else. Becoming a leader certainly doesn’t insulate you from depression, anxiety, or any other mental health challenges. Honestly, I suffered from depression growing up as a child. My goal wasn’t, “God, let me use my depression to change the world.” My goal was, “God, get me through today.” But I never gave up. More importantly, God didn’t give up on me. God used that time that I went through in childhood to help others today. He led me to become a nurse and to have ultimate sympathy for those I was caring for that were also suffering in the deafening silence of depression. He gave me an internal antenna to sense when someone is suffering. Some of the most significant developments in my career today can be traced back to that period. God never wastes a hurt. Leaders should never shy away from showing people this truth. When leaders begin to show their own frailty—and how God has used their struggles to make them better—it will be one small step to help wipe out the stigma.
Lastly, we need to provide a safe place for people to talk about their challenges. A place of non-judgement and non-gossip, where they feel safe to open up and say what they are feeling. Where they can be true and real. Where they don't have to pretend to be okay. A place where they’re not identified by their challenges or habit. It's important that they know their identity is in Jesus. The people who come to you with a mental illness shouldn’t be defined by it. It’s time for the church (us all) to take the lead in helping people with mental illnesses. For most of us, it starts right in our own families! We don't even have to search. For many of us, they are right there!
Jesus cared about the mental health of people. He ministered to those with mental illnesses. It's right there in the bible! If Jesus thought it was important to minister to those with mental illnesses, shouldn’t we?