In “3 reasons why churches fail at mental health,” I looked at several ways local churches unintentionally miss the opportunity to come alongside people struggling with mental illness.
And the local church is vital in this conversation also.
When I see the indications of increased mental illness in the culture, increased depression, and increased anxiety (even among children), I am convinced that the gospel of Christ is only made more significant to our society—not less, as so many seem to think.
The good news of Jesus Christ is truly the hope for all of mankind! I want to make another claim for the church. In addition to our calling to live out this gospel like embassies filled with ambassadors living in and proclaiming the goodness of the King and his kingdom, we are also gifted with what hurting people are looking for right now.
We are, to quote one wise fellow, like cities on a hill in an otherwise dark and threatening world. We can be that for what is often an almost “unreached people group”—those with mental illness.
What to do if you’re wrestling with mental illness
Here are some of the key ideas experts suggest for people facing mental illness:
1. Seek medical and therapeutic help.
You might think that there is not much the church can do here, but you would be wrong. Getting help requires resources. It can require money, babysitting, encouragement, and confidence, just to name a few.
The local church is a great place to find and build the kind of support system that makes getting mental and medical attention possible. Plus, it is rare for a minister to not have a good list of referrals for this kind of financial and supportive help.
2. Avoid dangerous coping mechanisms.
When we face challenges of any kind, we will be tempted to avoid them with addictive and/or unhealthy choices. Not only does the teaching of the church discourage or forbid many of these, we can also offer healthy alternatives instead—most of which will be mentioned later.
Further, many churches have special and targeted discipleship programs (12-step, Griefshare, Re:Generation, family issues, etc.) to help integrate the gospel into the most broken aspects of our lives.
3. Avoid isolation.
The church was created to engender community. When Jesus sent his followers out to minister, he forbid moneybags, knapsacks, and extra sandals, but he did send them out in pairs (Luke 10:1–4). There are dozens of “one another” passages in the New Testament that prove that community is a huge part of church.
When we taught through a sermon series a few years back about the church at my church, we summarized the entire identity statement of the church into three keywords: We are his. The “we” is significant in the sentence. In the local church, you can create that powerful shield—one of the most powerful shields against the ravages of mental illness: friendship. Most churches create a structure for making friends with a common purpose.
4. Get out, breathe, play, and exercise.
Again, the gym may be great for this (and many churches have those too), but people are more faithful to exercise when they have an exercise partner. The local church encourages intimate friendships, marriages, and family systems—which are great sources for that partner to walk, run, or play with.
Plus, in the case of our local church, we are blessed with a beautiful campus with disc golf, walking trails, and a lake for fishing.
5. Engage in meaningful work.
At the church I pastor, we also have several acres of grass that need mowing; one man put together a team of mowers that do the job! He claims that it is his therapy and threatens to leave the church if we ever make him stop (Thanks, Chip).
Mowing, like painting, gardening, organizing, etc., is the kind of work that you can see accomplishment with, unlike much of the “idea” work most of us do these days. When we do these for your church, you are also getting to accomplish something while investing in an entire community! (Side note: I avoid calling it “volunteering” since it’s your church, right? It’s not like you “volunteer” to mow your own house’s lawn!)
Another option: serve in children’s ministry or youth or hospitality. The local church thrives when creating opportunities for us to invest, serve, and work in a way that brings value and identity.
I will also quickly mention the value of being outdoors. The breakthrough work of Richard Louv, The Last Child in the Woods, reminds us that God placed us in a garden for a reason. We are healthier when we are working in his creation. I bet someone needs to trim the hedges at your church or pick up the neighborhood trash. Consider it an opportunity to work on your own stress, depression, and anxiety.
I admit that this may seem to fly in the face of numbers 4 and 5, but it doesn’t need to. I also admit that often, in the local church, we have forgotten to emphasize the same kind of rest that God’s word encourages (Remember the Sabbath?).
However, whether it is David’s psalms reminding us that we can sleep since God does not (Psalm 127:2; 121:3–4) or Jesus’ offer to rest us (Matthew 11:28–30), our ethic should be to rest. We teach that we can trust God even more than ourselves and that he treasures us even when no one else does. There is a peace and rest that can come in his good grace.
Do we always succeed in this? Of course not. However, at least we teach that we should embrace rest in the face of the world’s rat race.
7. Focus on the truth.
So, these nonmedical ways to fight depression so often listed—work, play, exercise, serve—also almost always have a fifth in nearly every study: pray.
It turns out that engaging with God and even with other religious behavior can fight the effects of mental illness. Mental illness is complex, and we never flippantly talk as if mental illness is just a matter of “pray it away.” However, even secular publications recognize that prayer has clear mental health benefits, even if they do not fully understand why.
Prayer encourages us to focus on the truth that there is a God and God loves us. Prayer reminds us that, just like passages all throughout the Bible, God will not leave us and will not forsake us (Deuteronomy 31:8; Hebrews 13:5; John 14:18; Psalm 27:10).
How the church can help those with mental illness
In today’s culture, there are very few places where truth is celebrated, much less studied and spoken into our lives. One of those few places is the local church.
Make sure you find a church that clearly teaches submission to God’s word and there you will find truth that can serve as a trustworthy foundation, even when our own brains are lying to us. When we are confused in our depression, anxiety, or delusions, we can hold fast to these truths. Mental illness is tough enough to navigate without a compass that points to true north.
Finally, I will note that in the church, we are used to being strange. Coming to church acknowledges that we need help. We have thousands of years of practice at learning to disagree but love each other anyway. What is better than uniformity? The unity of harmony. Our notes may be a little different, but we are trying to sing the same song. That is a healthy place to struggle, as we all do.
On that note, let me encourage everyone to seek out community in Christ, the lover of your soul, in a local church, where we can try to love each other’s souls, too. Therapy is a wonderful tool and counseling is a wonderful process, but neither of them can save you.
Therapy is not a savior, nor is the therapeutic model a new gospel. When properly integrated into a godly life, the kind of healing therapy can offer can be as helpful as rehab is for a torn tendon. As a licensed professional counselor, I encourage you to seek out healthy Christian therapeutic relationships when needed but keep in mind, brother and sisters: therapy is an excellent tool but a terrible religion.