Roughly every 12 minutes in America someone dies — not from war or natural disasters, but from suicide. That’s according to the 2013 statistics from the Center for Disease Control. Suicide accounts for more lives lost, after cancer and heart disease, than any other deaths.
There’s no doubt if you’ve lived long enough, you’ve known someone affected by suicide. Most commonly brought on by depression or other mental illness, suicide is a tragedy for all involved. Where is the church? Specifically not one denomination, but rather the body of Christ.
It’s been my experience that the church does not want to deal with mental illness without demonizing it and praying it out of people, often placing shame on top of whatever else the person is struggling with.
The struggle is real and often physiological, but it is hidden. Mental struggles are not as perceivable as physical.
The body can be broken or bruised, which is more easily seen. If we notice someone with a broken leg or bruised arm, we can empathize and sympathize with them. We often see to it that they get help they need.
Mental illness, however is very different. No one really knows what goes on inside another person’s mind except God. We can’t see mental bruises, emotional brokenness or spirits that are injured. We can’t see lower levels of dopamine or abnormal nerve cell circuits, some of the biological reasons for mental illness.
Almost 2 years ago, I had a great outpouring of support when I announced to the world on Facebook I had Stage 0 breast cancer. I received cards, texts, Facebook messages, all with words of encouragement and promises of prayer. I got flowers, special gifts and very special treatment from loved ones near and far. I know that this love helped and it was greatly appreciated.
But let’s face it — it was Stage 0, people! That is practically not even a cancer in my book, yet some acted like I was dying in the next few months, and in that sense, I guess they acted appropriately.
I also have announced (to certain people) I deal with depression. The response is strikingly different. Most of the time there’s an awkward silence. Sometimes there are questions about medicine. Mostly, there’s not a lot of support. Often, there is an unspoken judgement call. No one wants to talk about it. As a matter of fact, you can feel them withdraw, like it’s contagious.
It’s not contagious, but it can be deadly, which is why I feel it’s an important issue for the church.
Ed Stetzer, Executive Director of LifeWay Research and contributing editor for Christianity Today, has a great article at CNN’s religion blog on mental illness and the church, making the following points:
• There are people in the pews every week—ministers, too—struggling with mental illness or depression.
• People of faith know that God has freed them to love others, and that love extends to everyone, even (and sometimes especially) those we don’t understand.
• Christians need to realize the value of medical treatment for mental illness.
• Compassion and care can go a long way in helping people know they don’t have to hide.
• Mental illness has nothing to do with you or your family’s beliefs. It can impact anyone.
So, how can the church help?
First, do not demonize mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or depression. Saying things like, “It’s an evil spirit” or “You’re not spiritually mature” do nothing but bring shame. Depression is no more of an evil spirit than diabetes. The great preacher Charles Spurgeon was known to suffer from depression. I’m sure he had neither an evil spirit or was spiritually immature.
Second, bring things to the light. If you have been suffering with mental illness in the church, perhaps by sharing your story of hopelessness to hope will encourage others around you that might also be struggling.
Third, know the warning signs of suicide. Get to know resources in your community, such as therapists and help centers. Talking about it won’t make someone more likely to do it. By calling 1-800-273-TALK (8255) you’ll be connected to a skilled, trained counselor at a crisis center in your area, anytime 24/7.
Finally, if you’re a Christian, then act like it. Jesus said, “If you only love those who love you, what credit is that to you?” (Luke 6:32a NIV)
His point is this: All of us can love those who love us back. Becoming a master lover means you learn to love the unlovable – the ones who are different, irritating, moody, weird, or even depressed. In other words, all of us ragamuffins.