Depression and Mental Health: The Time Has Come to Break the Silence in Churches

There are people in churches who suffer with the distress of depression and mental illness, and many of these people suffer in silence.  Churches have stigmatized depression by either remaining silent on mental health issues or by trivializing its effect.  Many people who struggle with depression indicate that a depressive illness is often much harder to bear than a physical complaint because few people understand the predicament.  The sufferer feels alienated, left to wonder if anyone will identify with their pain, enter into their sufferings, and help them find deliverance.  Some pastors quickly dismiss depression and mental health issues as sin, with seemingly little tolerance for those who suffer from it.  A survey conducted in 2013 by LifeWay revealed that “48 percent of self-identified evangelical, fundamentalist, or born-again Christians believe prayer and Bible study alone can overcome mental illness.”[1]  Such a perspective could explain why many (66%) Protestant senior pastors rarely address mental illness.[2]  Silence on the topic of mental illness further stigmatizes the issue and has created distance between congregants and churches.  In order to overcome this taboo, those who suffer from mental illness along with their family members have shown desire for their churches to speak more openly about mental illness and create accepting environments for those with mental illnesses.[3]

Depression can be the result of sin when people refuse to accept responsibility for their actions, blame God or others, refuse to take the necessary steps for change, or hold on to anger or bitterness (Eph 4:22-24, Col 3:1-5, James 4:17).  However, depression can also be the result of a normal period of grief regarding normal losses in life.  Solomon advised his readers that, “There is a time to weep…a time to mourn” (Ecc 3:1, 4).  The apostle Paul used the Greek word bareo, which means “pressed or weighed down,” to describe the immense emotional pressure and severe hardships that he and others suffered at the hands of those who opposed Christ (2 Cor 1:8).  The weight was so intense that they “despaired even of life” before returning to sound mind by recognizing the omnipotence of the Lord and the intercessory prayer of the saints (2 Cor 1:9-10).  Thus, Paul established an example of how to address depression within the New Testament church.

Churches must cultivate an environment where vulnerability and weakness are allowed to be confessed and transparency is not punished.  The biblical prescription to confess one’s faults for the purposes of prayerful remediation of the sufferer (James 5:16) coupled with the admonition for counselors to be patient to all (1 Thes 5:14) creates the hand-in-glove scenario for biblical counseling.  Holistic health in people “demands healthy relationships in three directions—inward toward self, outward toward others, and upward toward God.”[4]  Such tri-directional health enables functionality in adaptation during and after turbulent situations, builds confidence in God’s sufficient grace, and provides strength through encouraging relationships.  The process of spiritual recovery and mental health comes through repeated commitment to trust in God, the practice of spiritual disciplines to remediate emotionally debilitating behaviors, cooperation with competent Christian counselors, resiliency throughout adversity, and reliance upon God’s sufficiency.  While specific factors such as genetics, environment, and stress will compound each scenario, pastors and churches must open their doors and break the silence on depression in order to come alongside people in their weakest moments to help them find peace (Matt 11:29, Heb 4:12, Mar 6:34).

[1] LifeWay Research Center. “Mental Health: Half of evangelicals believe prayer can heal mental illness.” Accessed July 20, 2017.  http://lifewayresearch.com/2013/09/17/mental-health-half-of-evangelicals-believe-prayer-can-heal-mental-illness/.

[2] LifeWay Research Center. “Mental illness remains taboo topic for many pastors.” 2014. Accessed July 20, 2017.  http://lifewayresearch.com/2014/09/22/mental-illness-remains-taboo-topic-for-many-pastors/.

[3] LifeWay Research Center, “Mental illness remains taboo topic for many pastors.”

[4] P.D. Meier, F.B. Minirth, F.B. Wichern, and D.E. Ratcliff, “Introduction to Psychology and Counseling: Christian Perspectives and Applications (Grand Rapids: MI, 1991), 267.

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