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The Church and Mental Health

By Jessica Morris

Society is full of stigma about mental illness, and the church is no different. Think about the reasons people use to explain depression:

 “That only happens to people who have a drug addiction.”

 “If she really knew God, she wouldn’t even think about suicide.”

 “Why is he sad all the time? He needs to get over it.”

1 in 5 Australians experience a mental illness each year, and suicide was the leading cause of death for people aged 15-44 in 2014. This makes mental illness one of the foremost issues for the modern church—and it’s not just in your workplace, it’s in your congregation, your home, and maybe even your own life.  So how do we respond to it?

 1. Recognise that mental illness is more than a spiritual issue.

We tell people who experience anxiety to “pray more” and “trust God,” but in doing so, fail to acknowledge their overall needs. There can be a spiritual element to mental illness; however, we can’t ignore the psychological and physical aspects of it, which require professional care.

2. Understand it can affect anyone.

 Mental illness is not restricted to one people group; a particular culture or a certain gender, sex or age. Genetic make up, life events and personal factors are only some of the reasons a person can develop mental illnesses like depression, schizophrenia and obsessive compulsive disorder.

3. Realise it’s not always related to drugs and alcohol.

 Addiction is a mental illness, and this can be expressed in any number of ways— from drugs and alcohol, to pornography and self-injury. It is important to note that substance abuse can play a role in the onset of mental illness and its progression, but is not intrinsically tied to it. 

4. Don’t expect people to just ‘get over it’.

Depression is defined as feelings of extreme and unusual sadness that last for two weeks or more. Like any other sickness, it’s not something that is fixed in an instant. With the right treatment, people can overcome mental illness. Even so, there are others who live with it and learn to manage its symptoms.

5. Seek professional support.

It’s not enough to just support a friend with mental illness. They need a professional to help them manage their illness and enter recovery. Connect them with qualified counsellors, psychologists and GPs who are trained to understand what they are going through.

6. Be empathetic.

If a person displays erratic behaviour, constantly talks about their mental state, displays suspicious wounds on their body or exhibits other unusual behaviours, don’t dismiss them as an ‘attention seeker’. These are all symptoms of mental illness and show the person needs a supportive community and access to professional help.

7. Don’t try to be a saviour.

Our first inclination is to rescue people who are hurting, but we are not equipped to do this because mental illness is so complex. Support your loved ones to the best of your ability, but leave the professional advice to counsellors. If someone is in crisis, call Lifeline immediately on 13 11 14, or the ambulance on 000.