By Tori Hook, Staff Writer
I was diagnosed with my first mental illness at age eight: entomophobia, an extreme fear of bugs. I remember clutching the fence of the church playground and shaking my head as my best friend beckoned me to play, a wasp perched precariously on the swings. “I can’t,” I confessed. “I’m too scared. I start therapy next week.” Her face mingled fear, contempt, and disgust—at me.
“What, are you crazy or something?” she scoffed, then ran off, leaving me to pick shapes into the mulch. Over the next 14 years, I was diagnosed with Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), Major depressive disorder, Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and Seasonal affective disorder (SAD), and am currently still diagnosed with PTSD and SAD.
While it’s unreasonable to expect tact and compassion from a second grader, I can and will hold the church accountable for its perception of mental illness. 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. will experience mental illness this year, and 1 in 25 will experience a serious mental illness that significantly interferes with his or her life (“Mental Health by the Numbers”). The church can no longer afford to ignore these staggering statistics. I have often felt deeply loved and welcomed into community, but more often I have felt misunderstood, devalued, and ostracized. The church, as believers that God’s power “is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9), should be the most welcoming and empowering place for broken people, but is often the opposite. A 2014 study published by Lifeway Research showed that 47% of people with acute mental illnesses said that their church was unsupportive, and that the church’s response caused 18% of those suffering from mental illness to “break ties with a church” (Murray). Church, it’s time to stop believing lies. People who suffer from mental illness aren’t crazy. We’re human.
1 in 5 adults in the U.S. will experience mental illness this year, and 1 in 25 will experience a serious mental illness that significantly interferes with his or her life
Mental illness is just that: an illness. Just as you would never insinuate that a person with cancer or diabetes was somehow in sin because of their condition, you should never assume that someone with depression, anxiety, Manic depressive disorder, or any other mental illness is spiritually failing because of their symptoms. When I have a flashback episode as a result of PTSD, an exorcism is not going to help. I don’t have a demon; I have a brain that is physically and chemically different than a typical brain. The methods people use to cope with mental illnesses are incredibly varied, but keep in mind that individuals themselves are the experts on what they need. If I skip class on a particularly bad depression day, I’m not lazy. My mind is sick, and I am unable to function in a classroom setting, just like you would be unable to function if you had the flu.
I have been made to feel that, because I suffer from a mental illness, I am too broken to be in a position of leadership. This is untrue both scripturally and psychologically. The most wounded people are the most equipped to lead and heal precisely because they themselves have been broken. My mental illness does not make me less capable of leading; it makes me more capable of empathy, compassion, and mercy.
Just as you would never insinuate that a person with cancer or diabetes was somehow in sin because of their condition, you should never assume that someone with or any mental illness is spiritually failing because of their symptoms.
Sometimes I’m angry at the church for its lack of understanding. The church’s demonization and isolation of those with mental illnesses is a heinous misrepresentation of God’s grace. However, I firmly believe that the only way these perceptions are going to change is if we talk about it. Mental illness should not be taboo. In fact, most people with mental illnesses want to talk about them. You may not understand or relate, but the point of community is not necessarily shared common experience, but encouragement in godly love.
Please ask me about PTSD. I’m not offended. Ask your roommate about her triggers and how you can avoid them. Ask your friend who has Manic depressive to get a cup of coffee and talk more about it. Ask how you can help. It’s okay if you don’t know much about it. There’s only one thing you need to know before you jump into this critical conversation: we’re not crazy.