Be Careful How You Address Anxiety and Depression
People often speak of the stigma surrounding mental health within Christian communities in fairly extreme terms. Yes, there are those who believe mental illness is the presentation of demons within a person, but that is arguably not the case for the majority of average Christians.
The truth is, most believers do understand that mental illness is a real condition caused by biology, the problem is how they believe these issues can be treated and diagnosed.
The diagnosis of mental illness is the first problem. Because depression or anxiety is so commonly used to describe temporary periods of mental anguish, it is hard for many Christians to understand that the clinical definition is very different than feeling legitimately sad.
It doesn’t help that those struggling with the clinical forms of mental illness don’t have physical symptoms. There are no hives or a severe cough that identify those with the most common mental illnesses. Instead, depression and anxiety are entirely inward, and only affect our behaviors. Many in the church are taught that behaviors are exclusively the result of our control over ourself and our moral standings.
If you believe in the values of God, in their perspective, the only reason for “acting out” or perceived laziness is lack of willpower or the desire to knowingly commit unhealthy acts.
This is the root of the second issue with how the Church manages mental health: treatment. If actions are solely the result of controllable thoughts and knowingly ignoring the word of God, the solution is simple. If these bad behaviors are the result of ignoring the Lord and letting yourself go against what is good for you, then the solution is to simply learn to control those thoughts and get closer to the lord.
This perspective is similar to seeing someone smoking a cigarette and saying the only solution is to simply put down the smokes. While it may work for some, there are many who turn to harmful substances as relief for other problems, whether they be personal, work related, or in many cases, mental health related. Studies have found that ADHD is heavily associated with smoking later in life.
This is to say, if we cannot treat the root causes of the behavior, we are not actually treating people.
While some people will be able to find relief and comfort from longer-lasting sadness or fears through the word of the lord, those who are suffering from a biologically caused mental health issue won’t be so lucky.
A strong personal relationship with the Lord is a powerful weapon against your average sadness and fears. He comforts us, and reminds us that all will work to his design, so long as we commit our lives to him. However, unless you are the few lucky enough to be touched directly by a miracle, a strong Christian life is not enough to repair biochemical imbalances causing true mental illness.
This is why I find opinions such as those recently shared by Charles Stanley to be dangerous. Stanley wrote a blog early this month for Crossmap, which used the tale of Gideon as a parallel for how we should deal with anxiety.
While the story holds some positive lessons for the average person, it is Stanley’s ending which raises the alarm. He says, “man’s methods for handling anxiety serve only to distract or numb us from stress.” For general fears, this may be true, but when using the term anxiety he includes a group of people who aren’t looking for a distraction or numbness. They are looking for a treatment which will allow them to finally be free of a constant weight on their shoulders which damages their ability to live their lives like an average person.
Until we begin to separate those who feel anxiety from those struggling with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, or another clinical anxiety condition, suggestions that anxiety can be cured through a relationship with God is as dangerous as they are positive. They offer good lessons for the average person, but for the huge number of people throughout the country struggling with a real mental health condition, these statements are alienating and hurtful.