Saturday, September 16, 2006

Church support: the good, the bad, and the ugly

I recently wrote an article with this title. It will be published online in a few weeks by the CMHA (Canadian Mental Health Association). But I feel I want to say a few things on the topic today.

We all know how bad the stigma towards those with mental illness is in society. But I think stigma is at its worst when it presents itself in the church community. And, let's face it, there is a lot of ignorance, especially in that community. I think this is not only unfortunate, it's tragic.

All too often the message that comes from the pulpit is that we should be able to deal with all our emotional problems through spiritual means. Many Christians don't believe in the medical aspects of mental disorders and encourage their friends to "Stop taking those pills. Taking pills shows that you don't trust in God. If you're feeling down, you're probably not right with God. Just confess your sins, and you'll be alright."

Now this ignorance is of course not present everywhere. There are many of us, myself included, who find wonderful support in their church. In fact I think the support from friends who share your faith can be the best you can get. Those who truly try to emulate the character of Christ by sharing their love - non-judgmental, compassionate love - with those who are suffering give better support than can be had in almost any other segment of society. They encourage their sick friend to follow his faith and to cling to the knowledge that God IS there, even if he doesn't seem to be. They become God's representatives to their hurting friend.

But bring into this picture a misunderstanding, uneducated church friend or pastor telling you that there's something wrong with your relationship with God, and the results could be tragic. In this kind of situation the church can do more damage than any other part of society. When a person who is already feeling the terrible pain and negativity of depression is then told that the fault lies within himself or that he is possessed by a demon (yes, there are still some who believe this) - I can't imagine anything worse for a person with mental illness.

The worst problem a newly diagnosed person has to overcome is the acceptance that she needs to take psychiatric medication. So many fight against treatment and thus have a huge struggle with recovery. The process of acceptance is difficult. How much worse it is for someone of faith to be told by their church friends not to take the medication - in fact, to be told the medication is somehow "evil". I recently read a pastor's blog that claimed that the use of psychiatric medication was "sorcery."

Christians are supposed to be "followers of Christ." As such we need to love as He does. Our role is to be compassionate. It's God's role to judge, not ours. Dr. Harold G. Koenig, M.D., author of "New Light on Depression", said that the unconditional love that Christ displayed and that Christians are called to emulate, is "the ultimate long-term antidote for depression." I believe that to be true.

I know that it's through the love my church friends have shown me that I have come to fully grasp how deep God's love is for me. That helps me to hang onto my faith, no matter what. This is what gives me courage and strength to continue, even when my road turns black.


jumpinginpuddles said...

ooohhhhhhhh so true. All things can be healed with prayer. Well we are stiull a multiple despte being so called exorcised, God gave us a brain that gave us a way to cope with the pain and we became a multiple, but yes youre right so many times ive heard from christians you need to pray more.
The problem is not everyone prays in here ;)

Amy Purdy said...

Since everyone has found out about me I have been told by so many "don't give up on God" "why have you turned your back on God?" "read your bible, pray more." I haven't turned my back on God. I have turned my back on everyone else because they want to add insult to injury and I just can't face them anymore. I can't face my church because that is how they all feel towards me now. This is exactly the reason I wanted it all to be hidden from them. I have never felt so alone, while my husband has support on all sides.

chalexa said...

i am a bipolar christian on medication and i choose not to share my health issues with people who i feel may judge me or pass along the info through gossip. its so detrimental to hear people talking that way. i think i'm lucky in a way because i'm strong minded and nobody can convince me that it is God's solomn will for me to pray away my mental illness when he created medications to be available.

marja said...

jumpinginpuddles, You're right. God doesn't always heal. He gives us ways to cope with what we have and what we are. Would a Christian tell a diabetic to pray more and all will be well?

amy, I feel your pain. I'm sorry you feel so alone. Wish I could come and go for a walk with you once in a while . Please realize, though all you see of me is a picture that doesn't move and words on the screen, I'm a real flesh and blood person who cares and who is praying for you.
The only thing I can say that you might or might not find helpful, is that Jesus also knew aloneness. Remember him in the Garden of Gethsemane and on the cross? For a while, even God himself abandoned him. God understands what it is to feel alone. When you feel pain, He feels pain along with you.

chalexa, Although I have been very open about telling people about my disorder, I can understand more and more how that simply is not the way to go for most people. I'm learning a lot from reading everyone's blogs.

Good for you for being strong minded and believing that God is Someone who gave us medications to help us cope. Good for you for not being affected by comments from people who truly don't understand.

I thank all of you for your comments.

Bleeding Heart said...

You wrote: "But I think stigma is at its worst when it presents itself in the church community. And, let's face it, there is a lot of ignorance, especially in that community. I think this is not only unfortunate, it's tragic."

This is why I feel that God and the relationship we have within our religion is personal and I don't like to talk about it much.

In my opinion, a lot of "Churches" and "People" are hypocrites. As the Golden Rule reminds us, "Do to others as you would have them do to you. (cf. Mt 7:12). And the Two Commandments of Love, 1. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind., 2. You shall love your neighbor as yourself.