For the better part of my college experience, I struggled with depression.
I was a Christian, but I had allowed flaws to develop in how I viewed God and how I viewed myself. The lies I believed and my emotional state wreaked havoc on relationships in my life with the people I was close to.
Thankfully, I was able to work through a process of healing and restoration with the help of my doctor, a Christian counselor, and supportive people in my life. Looking back, I can see how important it is to be aware of and deal with my mental and emotional health. I learned to see how they connected to my spiritual life, even though my situation with depression was probably moderate compared to many others.
I know that I am not alone in my experience with mental health. The National Alliance on Mental Illness says that one in four Americans suffers from mental health issues in a given year.1 This is a huge issue for churches to address, and as believers we cannot afford to ignore its implications.
I sat down with Christi Castleberry and Dustin Lunceford to talk about how Christians and churches can relate to issues of mental health. Christi, 28, and Dustin, 27, are both students at NOBTS pursuing Masters degrees in Marriage and Family Therapy and currently serve as counseling interns at Restoration Counseling with Dr. Ashley Brooks.
Ross: As Christians, how do you both holistically look at mental health in a person’s life?
Dustin: I think when people are in right relationship with God, themselves, and others, that’s when they are at their best. Within that, you have physical, cognitive, social, emotional, and spiritual components. If any of those are out of balance, everything’s going to get out of balance. If someone comes in, and they’re not exercising but depressed, maybe they need to start getting out and moving their legs a little more. It’s a cycle, and sometimes you need someone to reach into the cycle and pull you out and show you what’s happening. As you get things balanced in yourself, you can begin to relate to God rightly and to others rightly. That may sound backwards, since we often say God first, then others, then ourselves. But if we hate ourselves, we’ll probably hate others too.
Christi: One of the most key challenges I’ve been faced with in thinking about change in a person’s life is who is really doing the change. I only see a person for one hour out of all the hours of the week. I have to pray for them and believe that they’re going to do what they say they’re going to do and that God is going to honor our efforts. He knows best what they need, and we have to rely upon God to lead us to create a plan for treatment.
Ross: How do you feel churches have done in handling the issue of mental health within their context?
Dustin: I think the church has really struggled with this in the past, and we still struggle with it because it’s a really sticky situation. It can be confused with things that happen spiritually. But I think the church is moving in a really great direction, because we’re beginning to reach out and to understand that there are spiritual and mental and physical things that happen that contribute to how our mind works. It’s a huge sin problem, and I think the reason we have mental illness is because of the reality of sin in the world. I think the church at large is really trying to make an effort to understand it more and to learn how to approach people who are dealing with mental illness.
Christi: I think there’s been a lot of unintentional hurt done by the church, just because of a lack of knowing how to accurately label mental disorders and being able to pinpoint what the real problem is. I think it’s easy to just label it a issue of sin and let it stay there. So you have hyper-spiritual churches where they might take a person on a mountain top and pray the “demon” out of them, and you have churches with maybe a more conservative background where [mental illness] is a sin problem, where you’re in sin. “What did you do to cause this depression to fall on you?” “What did you do to cause this child of yours to have schizophrenia?” I think it’s foolish of us to jump on that type of labeling of sin.
Of course, sin has affected every facet of life and what makes us up as humans, but I agree with Dustin that there is now this awareness within the church. I hate that tragedies have caused churches to open their eyes to things. Maybe we have not tackled this the right way when it takes pastors committing suicide or pastors’ children committing suicide [to begin to talk about mental illness]. But the church seems to be moving in a good direction, and awareness is a good first step in that.
Ross: I think it’s safe to say there are people in churches who deal with mental illness, but a LifeWay Research report says that 66% of surveyed pastors publicly preach or speak about mental illness only once a year, rarely, or never.2 How can pastors or people within a church communicate about mental illness in a way that is beneficial?
Christi: I think it’s about normalizing things. That’s a term that we talk about in counseling. It means that you help a person understand that what they are experiencing is not outside the norm. That statistic that one in four Americans deal with mental illness is part of that. I think normalizing things helps people not feel like they’re crazy. There’s a sense of shame I think when people feel depressed or have anxious thoughts, and who do they go to talk to? We would hope that the safest place for them to be would be the church. If pastors, even from the pulpit, could begin to facilitate [normalization] from sermons down to a Sunday School level, it helps remove some of that projected shame that a person has put on themselves before they can share what’s going on.
Ross: Where do you think that stigma about mental illness comes from?
Dustin: I think it comes from a total lack of awareness or really mislabeling it as solely a sin problem. A big part of depression is how you think about yourself. You’re not born thinking that you’re bad. We are inherently sinful and disobedient, and I’ve heard people joking about their toddlers not needing to be taught how to sin. If you are depressed or have a severe mental disorder, there is some underlying sin, but it came from Adam. That doesn’t mean that you did something [sinful] to cause that.
I think the mislabeling of mental illness has been the stance for so long. The Bible has been wielded incorrectly on a lot of mental illnesses, and I think that’s where that shame comes from. It kind of creates this special category for mental illness that’s different than having cancer or being a habitual over-eater. One of those is a disease, and another is a sin issue. Mental illness kind of falls in the middle somewhere.
Ross: I’ve seen people who are mentally healthy and far from God and people who are Christians who struggle with mental health. When I was going through depression myself, I thought, “I’m a believer, so this should be taken care of. Why am I dealing with this?” How do you help Christians see why they could be dealing with mental illness?
Christi: A person can be a believer and be serving in the church, and on the outside, it looks like they have everything together. In reality, they could be struggling with a mental health issue. I think we get upset at God, because He doesn’t take these things away from us. I think we deceive ourselves into thinking there’s a quick fix to be healthy, but there’s some legwork that has to happen for that to take place.
We have to let go of lies that we believe about ourselves and operate out of. You have to address the lie anchored deep in your heart before you can use truth from the Bible to overcome that. You can partner that with medication if needed, because that helps get the physical part of that back to normal. But there is this emotional and spiritual part of you that is connected and has to be addressed.
Ross: What would you want to say to someone at Vintage or elsewhere who may be currently dealing with a mental health issue in their life?
Dustin: God loves you. He hasn’t abandoned you, and he’s not unprepared or surprised. He loves you, and you may not feel that right now. It may sound like craziness to you right now, but He does. There are people who will love you and listen to you and be there for you. Whoever it is, find someone to talk to. If you need to pay someone for a little while, that’s what we’re here for. If you’ve got a great group of friends who can do that for free, reach out to them. If you need to reach out to a pastor to talk about it, do that. God wants to see you thriving in whatever your situation is. Look to His people and His resources.
Christi: Absolutely, and I would want to encourage that person to be brave to tell people that they need help. That is part of the battle, simply acknowledging that I have a problem. It takes so much boldness to go forward and be honest with people and ask for help. You may feel a certain way right now, but that’s not the truth. There is a body of people around you who really do love you, but they won’t know how to help you if they don’t know there’s something going on.
Check out Part 2 of our conversation here:
1 Mental Illness Facts and Numbers, NAMI, http://www.nami.org/factsheets/mentalillness_factsheet.pdf.
2 Mental Illness Remains Taboo Topic for Many Pastors, LifeWay Research, http://www.lifewayresearch.com/2014/09/22/mental-illness-remains-taboo-topic-for-many-pastors/.