How Christians Can Take Mental Health More Seriously
Depression / Mental Illness
By Denise Kohlmeyer, Crosswalk.com
Thanks to continued exposure of the mental illness epidemic in our country—if not the world—and the promotion of mental health care, more people are coming to terms with this disease as being more common than not and expressing more positive views about it.
Yet, sadly, there are still those who think negatively about those with a mental illness. According to the American Psychological Association’s 2019 poll, around 33% of those surveyed agreed with the statement, “People with mental health disorders scare me,” and 39% said, “they would view someone differently if they knew [they] had a mental health disorder.”
Mental health is defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as “our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make healthy choices. Mental health is important at every stage of life. But usually, when a person hears the term “mental health,” depression immediately comes to mind. And they aren’t wrong. Depression was the leading mental health disorder in America in 2021, with 57.8 million reported sufferers (one in every five persons). That’s up from 18.5% in 2019. Granted, the uptick is most likely attributable to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Regardless, mental health cases continue to rise in America, although our country ranks 29th in the international rating of depressive countries, with a suicide rate of 16.1 per 100,000 people. According to the World Health Organization, in 2019, one in every eight people in the world (970 million) lived with a mental disorder, with depression and anxiety being the most common.
As someone who suffers from depression, I fall into that “one in every five persons” category, and, honestly, I can attest to the fact that I have been viewed differently by some once they find out. One can feel discriminated against, which is why I tend to disclose my diagnosis only when necessary. And for this article, it’s necessary, because it’s important that people—including believers—take mental illness seriously. Maybe even more so today than in any other time in our history.
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Acknowledge That Mental Illnesses Legitimately and Scientifically Exist
Many people think depression is “all in your head,” and one can simply “snap out of it.” Or, like what I heard early on when I disclosed my depression to those in my church: “Just have more faith…pray more...believe you will be healed.” All of these, though well-intentioned, were still hurtful and damaging to my psyche and my faith.
I have found that comments like those come from two schools of thought: 1) mental illnesses are controllable, and with just enough mental exertion and will-power, they can be overcome; or 2) mental illnesses fall into the realm of spiritual warfare (perhaps even sin), and with enough faith and/or prayer (maybe even confession), they can be overcome. The latter thought is likely a carryover from history (see below, A Historical Understanding of Depression).
Sadly, neither is the case. What many fail to remember is that the brain is an organ—the third largest in the body, in fact, right behind skin and the liver—and every organ in the human body is subject to dysfunction and disease. At times, our organs may not function properly. They will deteriorate over time, with age. They may even fail us entirely. The brain is no different.
Depression, such as mine, has scientifically been proven to be caused by an imbalance in certain chemicals. My doctor likened it to someone with diabetes who needs regular injections of insulin to help stabilize their blood sugars. My daily medication stabilizes the chemicals in my brain so that it functions normally, and I don’t sink into low moods and experience depressive thoughts of worthlessness and hopelessness.
Granted, not all depression is chemically related. It can also stem from other sources: devastating life circumstances/events, such as the loss of a loved one or a job; chronic or terminal health issues; childhood or marital experiences of abuse or neglect. In such cases, medicine may not be the answer. Sometimes the sufferer may only need counseling from their pastor or a professional.
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A Historical Understanding of Depression
Initially called “melancholia” in early Mesopotamian texts (second millennium B.C.), the ailment was attributed to demonic possession, and was thus a spiritual illness, so its treatment fell to priests. Other ancient cultures thought similarly: the Chinese, Egyptians, and Babylonians. For treatment, they resorted to exorcism techniques such as beatings, physical restraints, and starvation. They also used a technique called trephination, which involves the process of removing a small part of the skull, using an auger, bore, or saw.
The Romans and Greeks were more humane. They prescribed massages, special diets, baths, gymnastics, and music. They even devised a concoction of poppy extract and donkey’s milk to help alleviate depressive symptoms. Although they did practice bloodletting and purging to correct the body’s “humors.”
During the Renaissance, the mentally ill were thought to be witches, which led to the execution of hundreds of these “misdiagnosed” people. In the 18th and 19th centuries, those with mental illnesses were shunned, abandoned and left to fend for themselves on the streets, or were committed to asylums, where many perished due to ill-treatment, poor sanitation, and neglect.
Fast forward to the early 20th Century, and we see large strides made in this field, although not all of them proved effective, such as the Metrazol therapy (inducement of seizures), insulin comas, and lobotomies (removal of the connection between the prefrontal cortex and frontal lobes of the brain). With the advent of psychiatric medications in the 1950s, these procedures were discontinued.
Thankfully, we’ve come a long way in our thinking, treatment, and increasing acceptance of mental illnesses.
For further reading on the history of depression, check out https://www.mentalhelp.net/depression/historical-understandings/
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Biblical Examples of Depressives
As believers, though, we understand that mental illnesses have been around long before the second millennium, having been introduced the moment Adam and Eve ate that forbidden fruit. The body, including the brain, from that point on became subject to decline and decay, both physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.
We know this to be true given these examples of mental illness in the Bible:
- Job, who sat amidst the ashes, covered in boils, grieved the loss of his children, possessions, and property. “And now my life ebbs away; days of suffering grip me. Night pierces my bones; my gnawing pains never rest. In his great power God becomes like clothing to me; he binds me like the neck of my garment. He throws me into the mud, and I am reduced to dust and ashes. “I cry out to you, God, but you do not answer; I stand up, but you merely look at me” (Job 30:16-20).
- Elijah, who ran in fear from Jezebel, exhausted, sat beneath a tree and cried piteously, “I have had enough, Lord…take my life” (1 Kings 19:4).
- King David, in agony over God’s chastisement of his sin. “I am worn out from my groaning. All night long I flood my bed with weeping and drench my couch with tears. My eyes grow weak with sorrow; they fail because of all my foes” (Psalm 6:6-7).
- Jeremiah, the weeping prophet, continually mourned Judah’s rebellion. “My eyes fail from weeping; I am in torment within; my heart is poured out on the ground because my people are destroyed” (Lamentations 2:11).
In each instance, God did not discriminate against nor look with dismay or disapproval upon these melancholy men. Rather, he graciously and lovingly met them in their moments of deep depression, offering comfort and healing. As the Great Physician, God understands depression. He understands that the original sin committed by Adam and Eve caused dysfunction in the brain as well as the body. There is no judgment from him, nor should there be shame on our part.
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Understand Mental Illness by Educating Yourself
Nothing breeds fear and anxiety more than ignorance. On the flip side, knowledge breeds understanding and compassion. That’s why it’s critical to do your research and read as much as you can about mental disorders, so that you are more informed, less ignorant, and can separate myths from facts.
Here are several helpful, reputable websites to jumpstart your education:
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA): https://www.samhsa.gov/mental-health/myths-and-facts
American Psychiatric Association: https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/what-is-mental-illness
Mayo Clinic: https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/mental-illness/symptoms-causes/syc-20374968
World Health Organization: https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/mental-disorders
Know That Mental Illnesses Are Treatable
Just as most physical illnesses are treatable, so are most forms of mental illness. The key, though, just as with a physical ailment, is to get treatment, which some don’t. Sometimes treatment isn’t sought because of shame or pride. So, sufferers suffer needlessly.
But one thing you can do to help a loved one is to encourage them to see their doctor and talk about their disorder, so that they don’t have to live in constant despair. Tell them (kindly) to swallow their pride and that there is no shame in seeking professional help. God graciously gifted men and women in the area of medicine and psychology/psychiatry to help their fellow human beings.
For more severe mental disorders—bipolar, PTSD, mania, schizophrenia, psychosis, eating disorders, paranoia, and a host of others—more serious intervention and treatments may be needed, including hospitalization. But, again, help is available.
Tell your loved one, too, that those who have already been diagnosed and are taking their medications regularly are functioning just fine. And they, too, can lead happy, fulfilling, productive lives, once they seek help.
Tell them that depression is not a definition, it’s a diagnosis. Like with me. People who meet me never guess that I struggle with depression or know that I’ve been on medication for the past 21 years. Depression is my diagnosis; it doesn’t define me—Christ does. Nor does my depression deter me from living my life as God intended, with joy and godly purpose.
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Why Non-Sufferers Should Take Mental Illness Seriously
1. Someone’s health/life may depend on it
Early detection is the key to getting an accurate diagnosis and proper treatment. If ignored for too long, especially in severe cases, it can lead to self-harm and/or death by suicide.
Mental illness has also been shown to affect a sufferer’s physical health. Early detection and treatment not only helps the brain, but can also help to stave off other diseases, like cancer, MS, diabetes, and stroke.
2. Others’ lives can be (and have been) adversely impacted by untreated mental illness
Since 1999, there have been 11 mass shootings around the country, with a loss of life totaling 292. Approximately 5% were committed by someone with a mental illness, according to a study done by Columbia’s Department of Psychiatry. While this is a relatively small percentage, still many people equate all mass shootings with mental illness, right or wrong. While not every depressive will go on a killing rampage, it still is a very good thing to help someone with a mental illness.
Personal relationships also suffer because of someone’s depression. A person suffering from depression has the tendency to withdraw and isolate themselves. In this way, communication breaks down, feelings get hurt, misinterpretations happen. Depressives also report a decrease in energy and tend to sleep a lot, causing them to miss out on events and get-togethers, which affects others. They also can experience a decrease in libido, which can certainly impact their sexual intimacy with their spouse.
Depression (or any mental illness) has a ripple effect, in that not only does the depressive suffer, but those closest to them, as well. For everyone’s sake, it’s imperative that those with a mental disorder get the help they need.
7 Ways You Can Help
- Be present, and listen with empathy and compassion
- Don’t pass judgment
- Pray with them and for them
- Walk with them through their dark days
- Don’t try to fix them
- Support them: offer to go with them to see a professional
- Call for help, even if they won’t!
Don’t hesitate to call the 24/7 U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 800-273-8255, if you think someone needs help; or 911, if you think the danger is imminent.
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