In light of recent news, I feel this is an appropriate time to bring up this subject. Today, the Greenville, South Carolina news reported that the coroner had determined Jonathan Hamilton had committed suicide. This is the son of Ron Hamilton, known to many in my circles as "Patch the Pirate." Strong Christian family, in Christian ministry. Not long ago, the son of Rick Warren, author of "Purpose Driven Church," committed suicide. And not long before that, a top executive of the Voice of the Martyrs committed suicide.
As with most things, I don't necessarily believe this problem is getting worse, but I do think we are being made more aware of it thanks to instant media access 24/7. But I'd like to address the lack of awareness that is still prevalent in our churches.
Mental illness has quite a stigma in our society. And those in the church are no better. I think we are afraid of those with mental illness. We are afraid of not knowing what to say. We are afraid of what they might say or do. We find them unpredictable. Because of the actions of a few, those with mental illness are told they shouldn't be allowed to own weapons of self defense. They are told they can't be around children. They are told they can't pursue their dreams because of their problems.
In some cases.
In other cases, often the milder ones, they suffer silently. No one knows what they're going through. No one understands how they feel, why they react the way they do. They may be avoided. Or they may simply fake their way through church services and look forward to getting in the car so they can wipe the fake smile off their face.
Two very common problems are, I believe, ignored in our churches. And those who do not ignore them simply accuse the person of not having enough faith. Depression and anxiety are quite common amongst Christians. But we disguise them in our conversations. It is accepted for a mother to talk about worrying for her children. It is almost assumed this is normal. And when the person speaks a bit more openly of just how worried she gets, people tell her she just needs to trust God more, He'll take care of things. Anxiety, though, is very different from simply being concerned for your children's safety. Worry doesn't make the walls close in. Worry doesn't make you freeze in fear. That's anxiety. And that's a problem. It may be a problem that simply having more faith isn't going to fix.
Depression is a more silent problem in the church. It is frequently covered up by a fake smile or hurried exits. Churches try to be friendly, so people will pass you in the hall and ask "hey, how are you?" They might even call you by name. But they keep walking. Or the service is going to start in a couple of minutes. They clearly aren't taking the time to sit down and actually get a real answer. So the person suffering from depression gives the classic answer. "Fine." And they both continue on their way. You shake hands with the preacher. Glad you're here today, good to see you. And then it's the next person's turn.
I have known a variety of people with differing mental illnesses. Some were very mild. Some were quite severe. Some were managed with medication. Others weren't on medication but should have been. Still others were impossible to control despite medication and therapy. But the only way to really understand and love those people, was to understand their mental situation. I had to know which people I needed to probe deeper to find out how they were really doing when they told me they were "fine." I had to know which people would react inappropriately so that I could help direct conversations to topics they'd be comfortable with. I had to give extra grace when something was said or done, simply because of the way their brain and emotions work.
The responsibility of correcting this huge blind spot lies with three groups in my opinion. The mentally ill need to willing to say, hey, I'm struggling. I have a problem. If they are not able, or if they are children, the families of these folks need to, with the approval of the struggler usually, ask for extra support for everyone close to them. And the churches need to be open to these people. They need to welcome them with open arms. They need to accept them, not as people who need more faith, but as people who need to hear that the grace of God will meet them where they are.
We don't condemn or look down on cancer patients who get chemo. We don't look down at diabetics who take insulin or metformin. In the same way, we need to not look down on folks struggling with mental illness who take medication. And they need prayer, just as much as someone who's having surgery or who has Parkinson's. A bit more discretion may need to be used when publicly announced. Can you imagine what would happen if the ladies of the church prayed for protection and healing from post-partum depression, and then acted on those prayers? If they made a point to sit down with new moms and ask how they're handling the mental roller coaster of hormones and full-time baby care? If they encouraged those ladies who are struggling to talk with their doctors about medical help?