How the Church's Approach to Mental Illness Can Shame the Suffering | Sojourners

How the Church's Approach to Mental Illness Can Shame the Suffering

I grew up in a somewhat typical evangelical, Korean-American church and was drawn to Jesus at a young age —initially because I was told he was the one who could rescue me from God’s wrath and get me a spot in heaven, though later for other compelling reasons. I had my share of existential questions and troubling doubts, from as far back as I can remember, but I was usually able to trust Jesus, my family, and my community enough to bracket them and embrace the church’s teachings about life and God. (By “church” here and in the rest of this piece, I mean Western and particularly U.S. evangelical Christianity at large.) But some of the church’s common responses became problematic for me though once life began offering up more challenging questions and experiences.

I was 14 when I first started showing signs of depression. Before it became severe, it was difficult to distinguish from common fatigue and adolescent angst. It was in my sophomore year of high school when my family noticed I wasn’t well.

When a doctor first linked what I was experiencing to a treatable “mental illness” and suggested medication, it was a shocking blow. In my mind, “mental illness” meant crazy. In the early 90s, hardly anyone talked about mental health or mental illness in public. It was before the takeoff of Google, blogs, online communities, and ubiquitous ads for antidepressants. Mental illness and the stigma I associated with it suddenly covered everything with a cloud of shame, defeat, and doom.

I also learned quickly not to broach the topic of depression too openly in Christian circles. Many church leaders seemed to dismiss depression and anxiety as spiritual problems that could be alleviated with proper doses of prayer, Bible memorization, and positive thinking. A lot of Christians I knew also seemed to view cases that resisted such treatment as signs of inadequate faith, moral failure, or some other sort of spiritual deficiency. Sadly, these views are still prevalent in many churches and faith communities.

For the most part, my various church communities over the years embraced me like family and helped me bear heavy inner burdens. In all these different communities though, and from Western evangelical culture at large, I also received certain problematic messages about God and mental suffering. A few people in my faith community who knew about the depression and wanted to help said they felt confident that God would soon completely heal me and eventually free me from my ongoing need for medication. I just had to keep praying, keep “taking every thought captive” to Christ, and keep fighting relentlessly against dark thoughts and “the Enemy.” I was continually exhausted and wished I had greater faith.

One of the consequences of hearing those kinds of comments over the years from so many Christian sources was that I felt I was always letting God down. I had read plenty of material discussing various “dark-night-of-the-soul” experiences and some writers’ bouts of serious depression, but those were all passing seasons — limited periods lasting several weeks or months. Mourning lasted for a “night,” but eventually “God came through” for them with “joy in the morning.”

During my long “dark nights,” few people in my life were saying that I might have depression as a lifelong companion, and that that might be OK. Until I started seeing my spiritual director about five years ago, only a couple people in my life suggested I try to imagine Jesus sitting with me when I was down, having compassion on me even when I couldn’t hold it together like most other grown adults. It was much easier for me to imagine him rolling his eyes at me and sighing in exasperation for still being a mess after so many years.

A friend of mine once mentioned that he had had the privilege of chatting with Brennan Manning years ago, when Manning was scheduled to speak at his church. He remembered that the man was both memorably gracious and clearly “unwell.” That caught my attention. “Unwell?” It was somewhat comforting to hear, since Manning was someone whose writing I admired, and since I also often considered myself “unwell.”

Over the years, one moment from Manning’s writings has stuck with me and persistently resounds in my mind as a source of encouragement. In the opening to The Signature of Jesus, Manning writes:

[God] does not always choose the holy and devout or even the emotionally well-balanced. The venerable Liebermann, a powerful nineteenth-century missionary, was a manic depressive who could not walk across a bridge without a compulsive desire to jump off! (1988)

Prior to reading this, I’d never heard of this Liebermann — or any compulsively suicidal missionary, for that matter. I’d never seen or heard it mentioned anywhere that being sick to the point of having suicidal thoughts was in any way compatible with being a person of faith. Manning’s claim that the likes of Liebermann could be wholly for and in Christ, someone notably associated with the signature of Jesus — was a much-needed word of healing. It stood out in my mind as a rare sign of hopeful possibility.

The figure of Liebermann helped shape the beginning of my long, slow journey toward self-acceptance and a slow erosion of the intense shame I associated with depression and mental illness. On many days when I felt unable to feel anything but despair, unable to believe in a good God, or to conceive of myself as lovable in any way— when I felt horribly guilty and possibly damned on top of everything else — I would strain for some speck of hope and think of the passage I’d seen in Manning’s book.

For a long time, Liebermann stood out as a lone, encouraging point of light in my imagination. He represented the soul who could live out radical faith while also constantly walking the edge of madness, even on the verge of self-destruction.

Much of how we hear the church address depression fails to take the whole self into account, including people’s mysterious neurochemistry and quirky physiologies, their personal histories and traumas, and all the complexities of their souls and lives. Church leaders often leave many chronically ill people feeling like they aren’t doing enough to help themselves. They also misleadingly suggest that our primary goal in life is to get better —rather than asserting that God is with us, no matter how we’re doing, even if it’s all we can do to continue to be.

For some, joy comes in the morning after a passing night. Others might require special, prolonged attention and a slew of various helps to cope through a night that lasts years, that seems to hijack all of life — and this is not just true of the chronically ill, but many who might be bound by trauma or unbearable grief. In emphasizing just how much God wants for us to be completely well and free from emotional ailments, the church risks projecting skewed images of God and reinforcing the self-rejecting tendencies of those who might already find it near-impossible to believe that God accepts their unfixed selves as they are. The church’s prescriptions for the depressed often suggest that God is looking down at us with disappointment. We would do better to point to the compassion of the suffering Christ who weeps with us in the pit, who can create with us in the pit, who might even cause us to sing in the dark.

I’ve often longed for the sunnier, more trusting faith dispositions I see in some of my friends and family. It has taken decades to believe that God might accept and embrace me in all my erratic, uncertain, and angst-filled ways. My emotional distresses have become more manageable, but after all these years, I still take medication, and still have a melancholic, brooding bent. I’ve begun to experience some profound internal shifts and inner freedom with the help of my little tribe — my loving husband and son, fierce sister-friends, a wonderful spiritual director, a lovely and grounding pilates-barre instructor, and the most amazing aunt in the world, who has been telling me for years that my not being completely rid of depression doesn’t mean that God is upset with me. I’ve also been learning from many outside of the evangelical tradition of my youth, especially poets, artists, monastics, and contemplatives of all stripes.

It goes against my inner grain, but I have finally given myself permission to trust the voices proclaiming God’s expansively generous welcome and mercy. These days I’m daring to trust in a greater and more loving Christ than the one I imagined when I was younger, one who embraces all of each of us, regardless of our personal neuroses, vast fluctuations in belief and devotion, and frequent chutes into despair. My faith is still in an ever-wavering way, but I’m becoming more and more convinced of the trueness of God as illimitable and all-inclusive Love. May the mercies never end.