There is no question that faith can help pull us out of darkness and provide the hope and inspiration that is needed to persevere through despair. Several studies over the last decade have cited the positive role of spirituality and religion in recovery from depression. For starters, they assign meaning to suffering. Stories of redemption prompt us to look at the bigger picture and find consolation in the wider perspective of our hardships. They also place our pain in the context of other faith heroes, which makes us feel less alone in our dark night.
When Faith Isn’t Enough
But what about when we spend hours on our knees and feel no respite or consolation at all? What about when our faith fails to heal us? Just as religion and spirituality can lift us out of despair, a simplistic approach to faith can often worsen symptoms of depression and interfere with treatment and recovery. When some believers don’t get better, they feel as though they have failed at one more thing – that they aren’t the disciples that Jesus called them to be. Unfortunately, this kind of stigma is reinforced in many congregations. Consider the following statistics (which I edited for clarity) from several LifeWay research studies:
- A third of Americans say mental illness could be overcome with Bible study and prayer alone.
- Almost half of pastors say they rarely or never speak to their congregation about mental illness.
- Less than 5 percent of churchgoers who lost a loved one to suicide say church leaders were aware of their loved one’s struggles.
When I was a sophomore in college, I attended a Mass in the chapel of one of the dorms. I was struggling with suicidal thoughts at the time and had just agreed to start taking an antidepressant after fighting about it for a year and a half with my therapist.
“Psychologists’ offices are starting to replace confessionals,” the priest said. “We need to bring sin and spiritual warfare back to church, where they belong.”
I stood up and walked out. With those two irresponsible sentences, he discounted the 18-month struggle I endured to arrive at a place where I was finally okay seeking treatment. That was the beginning of a recovery that last 15 years, the start of a new life for me. Had I listened to him, I may not be here today. I continue to hear variations of his words in homilies. Each time, I walk out.
You Will Be Found: One Woman’s Inspiring Response
Nineteen-year-old Laura Pimpo found herself in a similar situation. However, rather than walking out of church, she took action. With the help of a friend, she has organized an event, You Will Be Found, that takes place on Saturday, April 6, from 10 – 12 p.m. at Downtown Hope church in Annapolis, Maryland. Inspired by her vision and her ambition to educate and bring awareness to the problem of stigma within the church, I recently had coffee with her. In her words:
When I was at my darkest and most depressed point going to church was something that I dreaded doing because it was making me feel worse when I so desperately needed it to bring me some sort of hope. Our church did not do this intentionally it was because I was interpreting what was said through a lense of depression however it still happened. So I decided, with the help of my friend, to organize an event in hopes that we can start this mental health conversation in our church. So as to assess the mental health needs we may have in our church as well as hopefully preventing the next person down the road from being hurt in the way I was.
You Will Be Found is a day where we will come together to hear from three qualified panelists about how we discuss mental illnesses in our church. We will be discussing mental and spiritual health, how we should use our language to try to build up and encourage those struggling with mental illnesses rather than potentially harm or shame them, and basic concrete ways to come alongside people around you.
A High-Maintenance God
With efforts by people like Laura, I believe the church will recognize that mental health isn’t separate to our faith, that believing in God means pursuing the tools for intervention that he proves: medication, psychotherapy, and support networks. I believe more people will realize that Jesus doesn’t want us to wait around for him to relieve our symptoms, that God is a tad more high-maintenance than that, demanding that we do the footwork of seeking the right mental health professionals and coordinating a comprehensive treatment plan that addresses mind, body, and spirit. With inspiring young women like Laura, I believe there will be less sermons I walk out of and more programs that speak to how our faith can bolster our recovery, not detract from it.
A version of this article appeared on PsychCentral.com.
I love to read your articles, Therese! I agree. God wants us to do all that we can to help ourselves with mental health concerns. It’s not easy; it is a very challenging cross. The Lord helps us every step of the way. The Church needs to grow in becoming better informed about mental health issues so as to not cause more harm. As a Sister I cringe when leaders in the Church speak so negatively about depression and anxiety. Those who speak negatively often have no clue how harmful words can be. I have been blessed with a few priests who understand me, my problem with anxiety and depression. Many don’t understand it unless they personally have experienced it or are truly compassionate. Unless we walk in another’s moccasins, we cannot truly grow spiritually or emotionally. God bless you and thank you for wonderful writing!! Sometimes it seems like you write what my heart wants to say but can’t find the right words. Thank you!
I agree with Sister Mary Kathleen. Mental health issues are a difficult cross to bear. I have thought the same thing lately. I have never liked the idea of taking medications, although, I have experienced general anxiety, and seasonal depression since childhood. I do not understand why. I started taking antidepressants in my 30s off and on, but they never really helped me. Depression became worse in my 40s, and at 45 I was prescribed several different medications, which continued not helping this condition. My doctor added a second medication which actually helped. I took the two medications for 8 years, when after a family tragedy I became depressed again. My doctor prescribed a third medication for a few months. I ended up tapering off the meds altogether with my doctor’s guidance when I felt better again. I figured if I could suddenly feel so poorly with the meds, I would try stopping. I felt good for 8 months, and claimed divine healing. I was ready to share my story with others. I had a relapse last November, starting the original two medications once again. I am going to try Cognitive Behavioral Therapy as well, in the hope of being able to try stopping the medications for good. I long for healing in the name of Jesus, and truly want to believe it will happen. The stigma that surrounds mental illness is real in our culture, as well as in the church.
Few people, clerics included, think much about the relationship of mental health to religion. There are religious ways of thinking that are mentally unhealthy. Moreover, it may be mentally unhealthy to reject religion. I address these issues and underlying neuroscience in my new book, “Triune Brain, Triune Mind, Triune Worldview,” available as ebook or paperback from Amazon and Barnes and Noble.
W. R. Klemm
So VERY TRUE Sister Mary Kathleen!
Such an important issue the church would benefit
by openly discussing, thank you as always for
your insightful writing, Therese.
Thank God for people like you and Laura. Our churches need to be places of compassion and healing, supporting our work with therapists and medication as needed.
I joined a new church in January, and will be “coming out” as a person living with bipolar disorder for Mental Health Awareness Month in May. It will be interesting to see how this changes how people perceive me. Just to put my condition in context, I’m a retired prosecutor, married 36 years with 3 grown children.
I’ve been thinking of coming out for the last year. I am a retired professional with grown children and grandchildren near by. I wonder how your children feel about your decision.
None of my children go to church. I think they are proud of me for who I am and what I have accomplished. I guess I feel like I’m trying to make their world a better place by being open about living with bipolar. This way maybe they will be able to get any diagnosis and treatment they need down the line. My father had depression and died from suicide. I now believe he lived with bipolar and was misdiagnosed. So, I’d like to see my children be cognizant of their risk for mood disorders, and not see it as a death sentence.