I am one of the many millions of people who suffer from a mental illness. About five years ago, I started having panic attacks. My first one took place when I was out on a date (of course)! Since then, I have struggled on and off with depression, irrational phobias, and generalized anxiety disorder. No doubt these struggles have been the toughest I have faced thus far in my life.
I am the Director of Discipleship at my church in Georgia, and over these past few years I have come to the belief that there is a better way to disciple those who are suffering from a mental illness. I am by no means a mental health expert, but I am going to discuss a few ways in which the church can best love those with mental illnesses.
1. Offer Compassionate Community
People who struggle with mental illness often feel isolated and alone. They do not think anyone who is an “outsider” (someone who doesn’t struggle with a mental illness) will ever be able to comprehend what they are going through. This is why a compassionate community is something extremely important for the church to offer. Those who struggle with any type of mental illness do not want to be treated special or different, but rather they simply want to be a part of the body.
Of course, there are going to be plenty of times when compassion explicitly needs to be presented to those who are suffering from a psychological ailment. The church and its leaders should be willing to go out of its way to provide this care. Many times those who are suffering cannot even put into words what they are going through and so compassionate involvement and care from the church must be present.
2. Present The Gospel Constantly
Those who are struggling through the darkness of mental illness need to be presented with the light of the gospel on a regular basis. There are plenty of times that those suffering with mental ailments just need to continuously and definitively hear the good news that Jesus Christ is sufficient enough and has promised to never leave them nor forsake them. Today, even doctors understand the importance that spirituality plays in healing a psychological illness. For Christians, a combination of medicine and gospel-mediation can help those who are suffering from a mental illness. Full relief might not come, but there is no doubt hearing the gospel on a regular basis is important to a Christian’s health. The good news that Jesus Christ has done everything for our salvation must be presented constantly.
3. Preach Hope Relentlessly
Jesus Christ is our hope (1 Tim 1:1). He is the only one who has promised to be with you to the end of the age (Matt. 28:20). There is no doubt that this message is what must be preached because of how easy it is for the mentally ill to struggle with losing hope. In a world that seems so pitch-black a lot of the time, the church must always remember to present the hopeful light of Jesus. This is a hope that will not relent even when the walls seem to be closing in. It is always important to remind those who are suffering from different kinds of mental illness that one day in the new heavens and new earth all suffering will be gone (Rev. 21:1-4). There will be no more mental illness. Counselors, pastors, and church leaders must share a relentless hope in Jesus Christ. He’s our anchor in this dark world.
4. Understand That You Probably Don’t Understand
Everyone who struggles with a mental illness comes from a different background and has different symptoms they struggle with. One of the most difficult things I have dealt with regarding my mental illness has been effectively communicating to others what exactly I am going through. What has been even more difficult though has been some of the responses and advice people have offered up to me regarding my mental illness.
The naive response of “Just get over it” surprisingly has been proposed to me numerous times through my struggles. Now, of course, I have taken that advice with a grain of salt. The church must learn that everyone’s struggle is different and that no two situations are exactly alike. There is no doubt that the body of Christ needs to continue to educate itself on the symptoms and struggles of mental illness. However, simple education should not make one feel like they have become a mental health expert. Mental health issues are real and a struggle for many and there is no doubt that sympathy and care triumphs over input and words of wisdom.
This may mean just being present with a friend while they struggle. Even if you do not have the answer, just listening can be encouraging and goes a long way. Being present can sometimes provide more comfort, than our words could ever provide.
A Few Final Thoughts
My mental illness has made me feel secluded and crazy a lot of the time. I started taking medication for my anxiety a little over two years ago and have taken it ever since. There definitely have been seasons of my life that have been better than others, but there is no doubt I consider anxiety to be my thorn in the flesh (2 Cor. 12:7). I have seen counselors and have tried to seek console in the Word of God, but life has just been hard. I have had trouble being in a healthy relationship with a woman because of my anxiety and I have struggled preaching to my congregation because of panic attacks. Mental illness has won the battle plenty of times in my life.
It is time to face the fact that there are millions of people who struggle with mental illness and the church must rise up and disciple them. Jesus Christ is greater than any mental illness and even though anxiety wins many of battles, I always remember that Jesus Christ has already won the war. We will be raised up. We will have new creation bodies. We will not suffer forever. He is the resurrection and life.
Matt Manry is the Director of Discipleship at Life Bible Church in Canton, Georgia. He is a student at Reformed Theological Seminary and Knox Theological Seminary. He also works on the editorial team for Credo Magazine and Gospel-Centered Discipleship. He blogs regularly at gospelglory.net.