On Faith and Mental Illness

“If you just have more faith, then you wouldn’t be depressed!” A member of the church’s staff spoke these words to me during my second year of post-partum depression; it felt like a blow to the chest. What took an incredible amount of faith was to return to that, or any other church again; I felt ashamed to even admit that I was suffering from this disease. 

Churches as a whole have, historically, done a poor job of talking about mental illness. Clobber verses intended to bludgeon us out of our “self-indulgent sinfulness” do nothing more than push us back into our pits of despair. Just as there are clobber verses used to condemn members of the LGBTQ community, those who live with mental illness have their own collection; often quoted to us with a self-righteous smile and an insincere hand on the shoulder. Being told to: “Rejoice in the Lord always” and “Joy is one of the fruit of the spirit” “make a joyful noise unto the Lord” finally, “Give thanks in all circumstances” — verses taken out of context, and used to attack. Mental illness isn’t considered legitimate by the church and are often written off as a lack of faith at best or demonic possession at worst. People who cite these verses are not quoting them to be comforting, they are being used to condemn. The implication is that mental illness is a choice, a self-indulgent “hissy-fit” and those who suffer should just snap out of it.

I longed for some way for my faith community to help me live with depression, but there was only an insistence that it was my fault somehow. I started a depression support group to reach out to others; we studied the Bible through the lens of living with mental illness. This group brought together lots of people who were suffering and together we helped each other wrestle with Scripture. Yet, the exclusively white, male, pastoral staff would make insensitive jokes about the group, “How’s the depression group going? They still sad?” We would constantly have to move meeting locations, often to children’s Sunday school rooms with too small chairs and lots of smiley faces on the walls, “This should cheer your group up” I was told.

I moved to another church with a ministry that was dedicated to advocacy, education, and support for people living with mental illness and their families. This group held book studies, raised money for local mental health non-profit organizations, and gave presentations on resources for people living with mental illness. Being part of a faith community that treats mental illness seriously and tenderly, is another way we can be the hands and feet of Christ.

I learned to live with depression and found positive coping strategies that helped me manage the symptoms. Two books that were helpful were: The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness by Karen Armstrong and Jesus Wept: When Faith and Depression Meet by Barbara C. Crafton, these two books take an honest look at being a person of faith while living with mental illness. I also gained a lot of comfort from reading through the Book of Psalms. I now no longer see my depression as a thing to be exorcized but rather part of who I am. It is the way I was created and, like any other disability, comes with challenges.

The following quote from Jesus Wept, sums this up well. “So, I will accept the craziness of my life, the anxiety, the depression. I will accept the surprises, the choices, and the tragedies. And I will continue to seek to understand the mercies of God.”