Myths and misconceptions about mental ill health can cause many Christians to avoid talking about their struggles, fear judgement, and not seek much-needed help. In the same way that neglecting physical health can have serious consequences, untreated mental illness can lead to more significant problems.
Here are some of the top 5 Christian misconceptions about mental illness
Mental illness doesn’t exist
While this stance isn’t present in every church, it’s widespread enough that many Christians living with depression or anxiety can recount a time when they shared their experience with a trusted friend or pastor who told them that mental illness wasn’t real, or was a strictly spiritual issue.
Mental illnesses are complex and influenced by a mix of biological, situational, environmental, and chemical factors. While there’s still much to be explored and the exact symptoms of a given mental illness may vary slightly from person to another, the criteria for diagnosing disorders such as depression, anxiety, and OCD are clearly defined and established.
Theories that connect disorders such as depression and anxiety with sin or a lack of self-discipline are unfortunately still prevalent in some circles. The fact is that mental illness is real and has a measurable impact on the brain’s ability to function normally.
Depression is a sign of weak faith
Among the most common beliefs held by Christians, and perhaps most damaging, is that mental illnesses such as depression are a sign that the individual lacks enough faith.
Well-meaning believers may even point to Scriptures such as Psalm 34:17, which speaks of deliverance for those who ask God for help, or Psalm 30:11, a verse in which King David praises God for turning his “wailing into dancing.”
The problem with drawing these parallels is that these verses, along with other principles drawn about mental health in the Bible, is that they aren’t referring to mental illnesses. Many verses pulled from the Bible on mental health are applicable to navigating difficult situations, but they don’t speak to mental illnesses such as anxiety disorders or depression.
It is also worth noting that Scripture notes many of the heroes of the faith in Scripture struggled at times with mental illness – including depression and suicidal thinking – and yet God still used them and their strong faith.
All mental health issues can be prayed away
Another common myth is that mental illness will go away if the individual prays enough. While God may choose to divinely heal any physical or mental illness, God also provides those who are sick with doctors, scientists and mental health professionals who have the skills and understanding necessary to help people successfully manage their condition.
Just as broken bones or cancer need to be treated with more than just prayer, many mental health disorders need professional interventions. For many people, supportive counselling is an important part of treatment to help them work through trauma or stress, which can trigger or worsen mental health issues.
My community won’t understand my mental health needs
Mental illnesses are surprisingly prevalent. According to Beyond Blue, 1 in every 7 Australians will experience depression in their lifetime (that’s equivalent to 2.83 million people today). And a quarter of Australians will experience anxiety.
While mental health issues may not be talked about openly in all circles, chances are that there are plenty of people in any given church who know exactly what a panic attack, manic or depressive disorder or compulsion feels like.
The most effective way to combat this misconception is by fostering open communication about mental health needs. For many people, conditions such as depression and anxiety are part of the human experience. Even with effective support, mental illnesses may be lifelong struggles. Recognizing mental health issues, supporting others’ pursuits of treatment and ultimately remembering that God is near and God’s grace reaches to the depths of any struggle creates a safe environment where Christians can support one another’s mental health.
People with mental illnesses are unfit for leadership
This misconception may stem from the old idea that depression or anxiety is the result of unconfessed sin, making the individual unfit for church leadership or responsibilities.
The reality is that not only do mental illnesses not disqualify an individual from church leadership, but they may make them more effective, empathetic leaders.
It may be true that some people may need to back off some of their commitments when they’re experiencing deep depression. However, those who are seeking support or are otherwise effectively managing their symptoms can bring a valuable perspective that makes them good leaders.
In short: mental illness and Christianity aren’t at odds with one another, and it’s entirely possible to lead a life of service and commitment to the church while still dealing with depression or anxiety.