You already sense that something isn’t quite right. Perhaps you experience debilitating periods of sadness and despair, or find that gripping bouts of anxiety are paralyzing you to the point that you find it impossible to function adequately.
Whatever you might be feeling, like many Christians, you may be afraid to seek treatment because of the stigma attached to mental illness. After all, your faith in God and fervent prayer are supposed to be sufficient to get you through life’s challenges, aren’t they?
Most likely, you wouldn’t be asking yourself the same question if you had a broken bone or dangerously high blood pressure.
In fact, you’d likely be heading for the nearest hospital ER or seeking guidance from your medical doctor.
Yet, somehow, mental health symptoms don’t seem to warrant the same level of urgency or care — especially among many Christians. In fact, the stigma can be such that it keeps many Christians from seeking the help they so desperately need — and living the life God intended.
Prevalence of mental illness
Approximately 25% of Americans live with a diagnosable mental health disorder in any given year, while 6% struggle with a serious mental illness. In addition, almost half of those individuals suffer from two or more psychiatric conditions. There are many types of mental health disorders, including depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) — just to name a few.
Christian’s misconception of mental illness
Contrary to what some religious individuals may believe, mental illness is not the result of a person lacking discipline or willpower; nor is it a sign that someone has sinned and is being punished by God. Psychiatric disorders are very real and very serious health conditions. The causes for these disorders are often multi-faceted, often including some combination of biochemical imbalances, genetics, and environmental influences. Severe trauma may also play a role in some disorders, such as PTSD and certain personality disorders.
Stigma surrounding mental health is one reason many individuals don’t seek treatment. The fear of what others, such as family, friends, coworkers, and/or a church community, would think can be quite daunting. If you’re struggling with whether or not to seek professional help, perhaps you’re worried about being rejected or ostracized by fellow believers. You may fear that other Christians will judge you for seeking therapy or taking psychiatric medication to help alleviate symptoms.
Worries about the potential stigma can be challenging enough, but it can be just as difficult for Christians who turn that stigma inward on themselves. You may feel as though you’re “crazy” or that you’re being punished by God for some terrible sin you’ve committed — either real or perceived. Perhaps you think that if you just had enough willpower, inner strength, faith, or self-discipline, you could pull yourself together. And if you can’t, the harsh, self-deprecating inner dialogue can be brutal. It’s a terrible catch22…
Overcoming the mental illness stigma
Whether you’re worried about judgment from others or you’re harshly judging yourself, those negative feelings and fears can prevent you from seeking the help you truly need and deserve. No matter which symptoms you’re struggling with, a mental health condition can significantly interfere with your daily life.
For instance, depression can make it next to impossible to go get out of bed in the morning, let alone do your job adequately or care for your family. Likewise, symptoms of bipolar disorder or obsessive-compulsive disorder can make keeping a job a monumental task.
Mental illness can also take a serious toll on relationships. If your moods are erratic, or compulsive behaviors consume your time, it can be very hard to have or maintain healthy interactions with your spouse, partner, children, or parents. Your loved ones may resent having to take on responsibilities you can no longer manage, and you may resent that your friends and family don’t understand you or that they don’t have similar struggles.
Suicide is another serious problem for many who struggle with a psychiatric disorder. More than 90% of people who commit suicide struggle with depression or another mental health illness.
Not only does untreated mental illness have practical implications, it can also have a negative impact on your health. For example, chronic depression increases the risk of heart disease and stroke, even in those who are otherwise healthy.
Needless to say, when the stigma surrounding mental health issues interferes with getting treatment, it can be dangerous in a variety of ways.
Finding relief from mental illness
Professional treatment can make a significant difference when it comes to mental health issues. Even if a disorder is generally considered a lifelong illness, such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, for example, treatment can help you learn to reduce and manage the symptoms so that you can live life as fully as possible. Finding relief, however, often takes more than prayer. It also requires that you be proactive.
- Seek professional help — You wouldn’t ignore a broken leg or pain in your chest, so don’t ignore mental health symptoms. A qualified mental health professional, such as a psychologist, psychiatrist, or other type of therapist, can help you learn to effectively reduce symptoms so you can regain your life. A skilled professional can evaluate your condition, educate you about your diagnosis, and develop a treatment plan. Although treatment varies by condition, many mental health disorders are treated with psychotherapy and, sometimes, prescription medication. Hospitalization may be necessary in some cases, such as severe anorexia, psychosis, or suicide risk.
- Find support — Living in isolation makes it easier to internalize the negative messages that can worsen your symptoms. Support groups are an excellent way to connect with others dealing with a similar situation or symptoms. It can be comforting to know that you’re not alone. There are many self-help groups available, with each focused on different aspects of mental health, such as depression, bipolar disorder, or autism. Christian support groups are an option, too, although it’s crucial that fellow members are supportive. If you feel judged or are made to feel bad about your condition or symptoms, by group members, it’s time to find another group.
Support isn’t limited to support groups, although those are an excellent place to start if you’ve been isolated. Reach out to family and friends. It’s not uncommon to inadvertently push others away when you’re not feeling good about your life, or if shame is casting a dark shadow over your self-esteem. Sometimes others don’t know what to say or how to be supportive, but will gladly be there for you if you reach out first.
- Educate others — Family members and friends may have misconceptions about your disorder, leading to fear and stigma. Often these reactions come from a lack of information. Keeping the doors of communication open can help demystify a mental health issue, and lessen the stigma as well. Help loved ones overcome their own fears by helping them understand your condition.
- Act positively — One of the most important ways to remove stigma is to respect and believe in yourself. Self-deprecating statements like “It’s time to take my crazy pills” or “Everyone knows I’m a nut job” not only bolster negative stereotypes about mental health, they can also make others uncomfortable to be around you. However, when you act in a way that shows self-respect, others are more likely to show the same respect to you.
- Seek spiritual guidance — A mental health professional can treat your mental health disorder, but that doesn’t mean you need to ignore your need for spiritual guidance and nurturing. Talk with a supportive spiritual counselor about your diagnosis. He or she will help you find ways to maintain or enhance your faith in God and strengthen your connection with other believers.
- Pray regularly — “I call on the Lord in my distress, and he answers me” (Psalm 120:1). Prayer is a powerful way to relieve some of the anxieties you may be feeling about your mental health. Make time to talk regularly with God, so you can express your concerns while feeling His presence in your life. While God allows challenges in all our lives, He is always there beside you. Trust that He is listening and cares, and will never abandon you.
- Implement lifestyle changes — Making adjustments to your daily routine can have a big impact on creating and maintaining a positive mental state. Sleep problems are common in many mental health conditions, so talk with your mental health provider if you’re having trouble getting to or staying asleep. Regular exercise is also essential, and has been shown to have many benefits — including improved sleep and mood, and decreased anxiety and stress.
The stigma linked to mental health illnesses can prevent you from getting the help you need if you let it. But an experienced mental health professional can help you overcome or at least learn to manage your troubling symptoms. Reaching out for help with give you access to the tools and expertise to help you get your life back on track. Make an appointment with a mental health professional today, and hold firm to your faith in God. The two don’t need to be mutually exclusive.