Monday, 4 May 2015

Mental Illness and the Church

I have felt compelled to write about this for a while now. After spending almost a year wandering, lost and aimless on a path which let’s face it was pretty lonely at times, I finally came back to a place where I could accept God. Accept? You ask? But you’re a Christian; you have been since you were 16. Yes. That is exactly what you may think. But this past 12 months have been difficult in ways I never expected or imagined. I spent nearly every single day fighting a battle of wills that I always felt (and sometimes still feel) on the brink of losing. In the lowest moments I cried out to Jesus. I wept, shouted, even whispered my desperate prayers for help. What I was met with, by the God, who “hears every single prayer” was Nothing with a capital N. I was met with deafening silence and it angered me. I was surrounded by people telling me that even as a “good Christian” it is always us who turn away first, and it is us, imperfect broken humans, who reject God long before he rejects us. When we hear his voice again, it is because we have been “shutting ourselves off” from it, drowning it out in any and every way possible because “sometimes listening to his truth is harder than rejecting his voice.”  You may have noticed at this point the obscene number of quotation marks and I am sure as you read this, it is in the voice of someone who has been embittered and hurt by the God, or the religion who is supposed to carry us in our darkest hour. I would also now like to highlight 4 words in the previous sentence: “the God or the religion.” It would seem I cannot determine who is at fault here and it is very important that I make the distinction now between the two, for they are almost polar opposites in their description.  God: He is a perfect loving being who, though sometimes inexplicable and incomprehensible, has great plans for every single one of his people. He hears every single prayer and values every member of his precious flock.
Religion: on the outside this defines what Christianity is as a whole, but it is also made up of people. People who are broken, imperfect and often misguided. This is important because it means that even guided by God, and his spirit. People make mistakes. They say things, which aren’t always helpful. And one of the things I think the church doesn’t handle particularly well, are those who are afflicted with mental illnesses: Illnesses which destroy the soul and even in the medical field and wider society are not properly understood. They are often just as devastating as severe physical illness, and wreak havoc on people’s lives. This last year has been an immensely difficult journey of learning how to live with one such illness: depression and anxiety. For so long I was afraid of these words. I was afraid of what they meant, afraid of what they’d do to me should people know I am “ill.” I was afraid of what this meant in the church. Before I used to happily listen to teachings about “prayer being the answer to all things.” While I don’t doubt this is true, I also sat through preachers berating medication and explaining to a large audience of people that Jesus was a far more effective healer than any form of anti depressant ever could be. What I disagreed with, was not this statement in itself, but the implications of it. It stigmatised anti depressants, and physical medication, which I have needed just to survive. It was increasing my dosage, which helped me to go from sleepless nights and crazy mood swings, with the odd anxiety attack in between that helped my head get to a place where I could process life. It was the beginning of a long difficult road to recovery. By no means is it the entire answer, but to imply that they lack power and are simply a “worldly” solution to depression is both na├»ve and outrageous. Pastors have a huge power and influence over people and to be spreading a message like that shows a lack of experience and a lack of understanding of mental illness. I sincerely hope they never have to go through that agony, but I also want people to be better educated. Christianity is not a backward, bigoted religion with only ignorant members as its body. God is amazing. Jesus IS the saviour. But telling people antidepressants aren’t the best solution simply encourages the world to see religion as backwards and ignorant. Is this what we need? No. There are enough opinions about mental illness floating around, and enough stigma and judgement to those who suffer, and though I hoped never to be writing this article because I had experienced so much love and care from my churches, I find myself needing to speak out because I can’t bear the idea of people being afraid to talk about it for fear of stigma. What we need is love. We should be able to be in church and surrounded by love when we’re at our most broken. It should not be a case of waiting until we feel we are starting to fall back together to return.