By Ginger Robertson
As a church-going health care worker who has fought her own battle with mental illness, I’ve always been frustrated by one message I consistently heard in church: Mental illness makes you “a bad Christian.”
Growing up in a gospel church in southern Louisiana — and even attending a nondenominational protestant church as an adult living in North Dakota — I internalized harmful messages that inspired fear rather than encouraging help or healing. In sermons, books by Christian leaders and private conversations with preachers and churchgoers, I would often hear the following statements:
Accusations like these, as you might expect, have the power to shame and derail anyone living with mental illness and hinder them from seeking necessary care.
When it came to physical illness, faith leaders at my church encouraged us to see cardiologists, obstetricians and oncologists, as maintaining physical health allowed us to be “good and faithful Christian soldiers.” We were taught that God is the “great surgeon” and “ultimate healer,” and He can work through health care providers.
However, His power to heal through others seemed to stop at therapists or psychiatric medications. Instead, mental illnesses were treated as a spiritual and moral failure that could be fixed through prayer and repentance.
When I was battling depression as a teenager, a preacher even attempted to “cast out” my “demons.” He pressed his hand pressed on my forehead and said, “I command the demons to come out, in Jesus’ name!” I truly believe the preacher had the best of intentions, but the event left me feeling like I was a bad person, equivalent to a demon, and so weak that I would allow demons to live inside me. I cried myself to sleep that night.
My guilt intensified when my church passed out booklets to help teens fight what it deemed to be “demons” of adolescence: Alcohol, drugs, sex and depression. The booklet advised that we simply “walk away” from the demons.
In my early 20s, I tried again. I had an individualized prayer session where I was instructed to scream at the demon of depression and to stomp on an invisible dark cloud that was beneath me. I thought the exercise was therapeutic at the time. But when the depression inevitably returned, I felt guilty that I hadn’t done the session right or believed enough.
Desperate for resolution, I researched Christian-based health insurance to help with my mental health care. But the Christian-affiliated insurance companies I looked into were resolute in their opposition to covering antidepressants, as these medications were “not biblical.”
I believed my home church in North Dakota could be a support system for me later in my mental health journey. After recovering from a period of intense suicidal ideation following a serious physical injury, I credited much of my progress to my faith and involvement in church. The combination of effective health care, Bible study group and social connection had grounded me and bolstered my recovery.
Ultimately, I also hoped that my story of using faith and fellowship to improve my mental health could be an excellent part of my testimony and reach others who might have turned to the church for help. My church, however, felt differently.
Despite my involvement in my faith community — as a successful participant in prayer groups, children’s church and community outreach — I was not permitted to volunteer in a church youth group because I disclosed my past struggles with suicidal ideation. At the time, my primary goals were to help lead my daughter to salvation, and to be there for youth that were struggling as I once had. I also believed that volunteering in this capacity would be beneficial for my mental health.
The youth pastor dismissed my concerns, telling me to keep working on myself, and that I could be “interviewed” again in a year. The message felt clear: Your desire to participate in the church is of less importance than our belief that your mental illness is a threat to our church.
Ultimately, this rejection hindered my recovery by making me feel “less than” and untrustworthy. Moreover, it damaged my relationship with Jesus Christ and my involvement with the church. I was angry and hurt, but not just for my own sake. As a nurse in a mental health care facility, I thought about my patients, and how they would be treated in this environment.
While the rejection by my church was a painful experience, I still returned to my faith to guide me. As I have navigated my recovery, I have embraced two principles:
After hearing a pastor tell a Bible study group that depression “wasn’t real,” I began a conversation about receiving mental health treatment. Most of the people in the room admitted to not only being on some type of psychiatric medication, but that they were grateful for the difference medication made in their lives. These conversations are invaluable; it shouldn’t be a dark secret that many of us seek necessary help.
Ultimately, I hope my story can help people who are struggling with their faith and community when battling a mental illness. I hope my peers won’t allow fears of “not being a good Christian” to hinder them from seeking counseling or medication.
The brain is complex, and sometimes there are misfires and imbalances just as there may be clots in blood vessels or weakness in the alveoli of the lungs. I believe that God made all these intricate parts of us, and He not only wants us to take care of ourselves, but He gives us ways to seek help.
Ginger Robertson has been living with depression since childhood. Her personal experiences have fueled her to act with empathy and compassion throughout her career as a registered nurse. One of her favorite Bible verses is Jeremiah 29:11.
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