According to a study* done in the US in the fall of 2020, depression symptoms tripled in adults during the pandemic. The use of prescription drugs for mental health issues has been steadily increasing over the last twenty years. This is a topic of great importance for followers of Christ.
Depression and anxiety affect people from all age groups, income brackets, races, and religious affiliations. However, many times the way churches and Christians approach these topics can do more harm than good.
God’s Word offers hope and insight into the topic of mental health, and we, as followers of Jesus, can be hope bearers as well. Science and life experience offer us additional tools to better serve others in Christ’s love.
This toolkit will walk through helpful scriptures, dive into what Christians tend to get wrong on this topic, and offer some applicable tools for those suffering and those in support roles.
So where in God’s Word can we find guidance on this topic?
"God saw all that He had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning—the sixth day."–Genesis 1:31 NIV
The creation account in scripture says mankind is created in God’s image. Before God rests on the seventh day, He looks at all He’s made and calls it good. It is not uncommon for someone struggling with mental illness to be sitting under a boulder of shame and inadequate feelings. It is important to note that we were all created in the good and beautiful image of God and struggling with mental illness does not mean we are bad, broken, irredeemably flawed, or inadequate.
"The Lord is a refuge for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble."–Psalm 9:9 NIV
"The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit."–Psalm 34:18 NIV
Sometimes depression and anxiety are caused by situations or temporary circumstances. Sometimes they’re related to chemicals in the brain. Many times it’s both of these issues at play. These verses in the Psalms are relevant to both. Whether the heavy weight we are carrying is circumstantial or biological, Christ is near.
"He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end."–Ecclesiastes 3:11 NIV
The author of Ecclesiastes is grappling with life’s big questions. Does anything matter? Why are we here? What is the point of all of this? Yet, woven throughout the book you will find that the author has a deep sense that existence is full of meaning even though that meaning is often shrouded in mystery. Ecclesiastes is a great spot in scripture to meditate on the meaning of life. It may ask some uncomfortable questions, but it is also full of comfort in the form of an ever-present and loving God.
“Peace I leave with you; My peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”–John 14:27 NIV
There is a distinct difference between superficial happiness and deep peace. At times, we may feel burdened by the realities of the world but can still have peace by finding our identity and purpose in Christ. Oftentimes depression and anxiety can be rooted in feeling lost or out of control. Being anchored in Christ will absolutely not “cure” those feelings but having a connection with God that is tuned to your unique characteristics can offer peace to weather the storm.
"But He said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness.' Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong."–2 Corinthians 12:9-10 NIV
Paul mentions his “thorn in the flesh” several times in the books he authored. The actual affliction he suffered is never named, but it very well could have been some type of anxiety or depression. Whatever it is, he does mention that it is humbling and keeps him from “being conceited.” Depression and anxiety are indeed humbling experiences. They cause our need for support to grow and our ability to be self-reliant to diminish. It is in these moments of weakness that the grace of Christ is most powerful.
Even when we’re equipped with helpful scripture and a heart tuned to God’s will, our well-intentioned reactions and postures can be harmful to those suffering from mental health issues. Here are a few harmful stances that people often take:
Sin is real. Every human has tendencies that lead to sin. BUT, simply telling someone who is in the midst of a painful struggle that they need to stop sinning or “get right” with God is unproductive. As previously mentioned, it’s likely that a Christian dealing with mental health issues already has a fair amount of shame for struggling in the first place.
Pastor Carter has talked extensively about his mental health struggles. Early on, he felt that the answer was to “try harder and pray more.” While digging in and reading God’s Word and praying more are all good things, it can lead to a sense of failure if the situation doesn’t improve. If you speak to a group of self-professed Christians who have struggled with depression, you’ll likely find a fair portion will say that praying more was not the final answer. Many will say that counseling and medication ended up being a key factor in their improvement. Jesus extends grace to all of us, even those of us that need more than spiritual tools to get better.
It is very easy to want to cheer a person up by telling them all the wonderful things in their life that should bring them joy. And while it isn’t entirely wrong, it is just...unhelpful. A person who feels depressed or anxious isn’t just failing to notice all the good around them. They’re often burdened by a deep sense that something is not right despite the good they can see in the world. A better posture to take with someone who is having a hard time is to lament with them. Let them talk about what hurts without trying to solve the problem. This all feels counterintuitive, but the answer to mental health issues is not to sweep it all under the rug and “choose joy.”
This isn’t a belief that people often say out loud. However, there is so much stigma surrounding depression and anxiety in the church that those who are struggling often won’t even speak up because of shame or embarrassment. For one, we need to recognize that mental health issues do not mean someone is broken or less valuable. Furthermore, we should actually be looking to those around us who struggle with depression for diverse insights into a wide variety of topics. Someone who has been humbled by this kind of pain can have valuable viewpoints to offer. 1 Corinthians 12 has a lot to say about the gift of diversity within the body of Christ. Many unique gifts work together to form a healthy body.
*Source for the statistic in the opening paragraph: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32876685/