My Mental Illness Is Not a ‘Cross to Bear’

I am a suicide survivor with generalized anxiety disorder and a history of self-harm. When I tell people this, I never know what kind of response I’m going to get.

Some people ask me what generalized anxiety disorder is. Some share their own mental health journey. Some talk about loved ones, friends, or family members who have been on a similar path. Some aren’t sure what to say, or feel awkward about asking the “wrong questions.” As an advocate for disability and mental health justice in the church and world, I’ve learned to build compassionate conversations and relationships from each of these responses.

But some responses anger me. People who point to real issues with the pharmaceutical industry to suggest that I should stop taking life-saving medication. People who use mental illness as a punchline to mock Donald Trump, instead of working to dismantle his policies that oppress and exploit people (including and especially mentally ill people).

And there is one response, couched in the Christian narrative, that makes my skin crawl: “Well, that’s just your cross to bear.” Although it often comes from a place of sincerity, this statement is dangerous for mentally ill Christians and all mentally ill people.

My mental illness is not a “cross to bear.” It is not rooted in divine mandate or punishment, but in my brain’s chemical composition and that brain’s relationship with its environment. My brain, in all its complexity, isn’t spiritually separate from my material body. It is a part of my fully embodied self. And my faith tells me that this body, no matter its serotonin levels, is fundamentally imbued with an inherent worth and dignity that no one can take away.

My anxiety is not a cross inflicted upon my body. My anxiety is my body: my nail-biting, foot-tapping, screaming, twitching body with a history of compulsion and self-harm. And that body is made in the image and likeness of God. In the words of M. Shawn Copeland, my body is “a site and mediation of divine revelation.”

My anxiety is not a cross that affects my life. My anxiety is my life. I have always been drawn to William Stringfellow’s idea that “human beings are called to the vocation of being human, nothing more and nothing less.” My vocational journey into human-ness is deeply intertwined with my generalized anxiety disorder, and in fact the two cannot be separated.

So, if mental illness is a part of our fully embodied lives, then how are we to consider the cross? If we are to be historically and theologically honest, the cross must be considered as an instrument of torture and death, used by an oppressive and exploitative state. So, what is “the cross” for mentally ill people?

Our cross is not our mental illness, but the disabling systems of power and death that harm and kill mentally ill people. These systems are built and upheld by our own oppressive government and the exploitative global economy.

Our cross is the world’s wealthiest nation refusing to provide health care for all people, and political leaders decrying Medicare for all as unrealistic while suicide rates in the U.S. are at their highest in 30 years.

Our cross is the complex relationship between ableism, sexism, racism, poverty, militarism and anti-LGBTQ+ violence, which oppresses those at the margins of the church and world.

Our cross is the lie that mentally ill people are a threat to those around us. In fact, mentally ill people are 10 times more likely to be victims of a violent crime, and are 16 times more likely to be killed during a police encounter.

Our cross is our neoliberal capitalist economy that George Monbiot argues is marked by “competitive self-interest and extreme individualism." This economy exacerbates anxiety and inequality by separating us from one another and breaking up our life-giving relationships. It also creates a global crisis of underfunded mental health services. For example, my city’s newspaper recently reported that Iowa, the state where I live, has “fewer psychiatric beds and mental health professionals than nearly every state in the nation,” thanks to privatization and the slashing of public services.

Our cross is a global church ill-equipped to deal with mental illness and deeply rooted in ableism, a structural sin that permits discrimination and violence against mentally ill people.

We did not create these crosses. They are not ours to bear because of God’s will. They are ours to bear because of the death-dealing powers and principalities of this world. But these systematically sinful structures will not have the last word. All around the world, faith communities like my church are resisting attitudes, systems, governments, and policies that harm mentally ill people.

Christian advocates for mental health justice follow a faith narrative that proclaims the destruction of the cross’ deadly power through resurrection. I believe in this ancient story, which says Love has the last word. And Love says to me, and to all Her beloved mentally ill kin, that we can live in a world with no more crosses to bear.