How struggles with mental health and addictions can help us be the church
The church needs to get better at talking about mental health issues (including depression, bipolar, and anxiety) and about addictions (including alcohol, drugs, pornography, gambling, work, and sexual).
And we need spaces where Christian leaders, pastors, and congregational members can be honest about their own struggles with these things. Open conversations. Care within community. And gracious steps toward reconciliation where needed, and toward help, wholeness, and hope.
Mental Health and Addictions in the Church
Mental health issues and addictions are as common in the church and among its leaders, as they are in society. In fact, the W.H.O. indicates that mental health problems are on the rise and will become the # 2 health issue worldwide by the year 2020.
So we need to realize that theologies and practices of pastoral care, humility, community, vulnerability, human flourishing, brokenness, sexuality, addiction, forgiveness, reconciliation, healing, restoration, and hope (to name a few) are not just nice ideas or worthy projects for research students, these theologies need to become priorities for the church and its ministers.
Responding thoughtfully and compassionately to these things is a priority for the church and its leaders.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful to think that a hurting person with a disease that is generally not visible could turn to the church in the assurance that the church seeks to understand the complex issues of mental health. For a person with a mental health issue, there is nothing better than simple validation.
Caring for Those Who Struggle
The church has a problem. Often, even when someone is honest about their struggles, they still may not receive the support they expect from the church.
Many leave the church because it took a lot of courage to be open about their mental health issues and they felt they didn’t receive the support they needed once they had opened up. This comes from a lack of understanding about how to help someone, along with a lack of willingness/knowledge about the need to travel with someone for the long term (perhaps also some unrealistic expectations on the part of the person who is struggling).
This will take a shift in how we care for those who suffer among us. It’ll require a change in how we conceive human brokenness and flourishing. We’ll need to allow Christian leaders to be open and transparent. The wounded healer can assist the wounded and understand healing. If any group should understand what it means to be human and forgiven and healing, surely it is the church.
My Own Struggles with Depression
Throughout my ministry, I’ve struggled with varying degrees of depression.
Most of the time, it’s a low-grade depression and easily managed. Sometimes it’s more significant. This depression comes and goes, but lately it hasn’t been so frequent.
But, up until 5 years ago, I would never have told anyone about my struggle with depression. Only my family and doctor knew. I kept it locked up and hidden away, afraid that people might find out.
It was the Spirit and my students who helped me open up.
I remember the day clearly. I was teaching a class on being open and vulnerable in pastoral ministry, and the Spirit whispered in my ear: “But you’re not open and honest and vulnerable about your struggles. You’re keeping this hidden like a dark and shameful secret. How is that helping you or my church? How is that helping the next generation of Christian pastors and leaders?”
I shared my struggles with these students, and was overwhelmed by their love and understanding and support. Some approached me later to share their own struggles, and how they’d never had the courage to tell anyone. They sought help, and began the journey toward healing and recovery.
A book that’s really helped me is Arch Hart’s Dark Clouds, Silver Linings. Arch Hart is a master of understanding the complexities of depression. He validates the struggle and then he assists by offering ways to climb out of the depression. He typifies what I’m trying to say—he has excellent clinical insight and he integrates this with considered theological reflection. Arch’s book gave me a helpful introduction to the nature, causes, symptoms, management, and healing of depression. It helped me work out where to get help for depression in ministry (and where anyone in any carerr or stage in life can get help).
I now understand the various sources of depressions in my life. I know where to go to get help. I’ve built habits into my life to sustain personal wellbeing.
And, importantly, I’m not afraid to talk about my experiences and struggles.
I want to say thank you to the ministry team of my local church, who stood by me and my family, and who supported and cared for us during my greatest struggles with mental health issues. The love and support of my family and the pastors of my local church made a huge difference to my recovery. We should never underestimate the role played by the whole local church, pastors and members.
Let’s Talk About Mental Health Issues and Addictions, and Help People Recover
Mental health issues have afflicted Christian leaders and members of congregations throughout biblical and contemporary times. These include anxiety, depression, bipolar, addictions, eating disorders, posttraumatic stress disorder, and more.
Sadly, many Christians have been ashamed or afraid to speak about these struggles.
But if we are truly the church, then we shouldn’t need to feel condemned. We don’t need to feel guilty or ashamed when we struggle with mental health issues.
We shouldn’t fear that if we talk openly about these things then people would look down on us. We shouldn’t worry that they’ll think we’re unspiritual. We shouldn’t worry that honesty will impede our careers or limit our ministries.
Being assured and certain of this, helps prevent struggles from spiraling out of control. And it helps us feel confident to get the support and care and healing they need.
We can allow seasons of difficulty to drive us toward our ultimate source of recovery, comfort, healing, hope, and strength—Jesus Christ.
And, of course, God uses healthcare professionals in the recovery process.
When we cooperate with God’s healing presence in the midst of our struggles with mental health, we find that God and his people can guide us toward healing, recovery, wholeness, and hope.
We can turn to God and others for the resources we need for recovery and health.
Because of my own personal struggles, I’ve tried to be intentional about developing my emotional and relational and spiritual resources.
I’ve tried to foster a vital relationship with God through spiritual practices. These include devotional reading, mentoring, exercise, recreation, and prayer.
So, Where Do We Start?
The church needs to talk openly about mental health issues (including depression, bipolar, and anxiety). We also need to talk honestly about addictions (including alcohol, drugs, pornography, gambling, work, and sexual).
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The reality is that people are sitting in our churches every week with mental health struggles. So is church a place a solace for them or another place where they feel unclean, strange, to be pitied, or as is often the case, to be avoided!
I could say so much here. But I think it begins with local churches making concrete commitments to change.
Churches, colleges, and denominations need to cultivate a new openness and transparency about the struggles of Christians and their leaders. Each of us must decide to embody a new openness and vulnerability.
We must choose to embody the change in our own relationships and conversations and self-disclosures.
We need spaces where Christian leaders and congregational members can be honest. We need open conversations, care within community, and gracious steps toward reconciliation where needed.
Let’s be communities of peace, grace, faith, hope, help, wholeness, and love. Those are the kinds of communities that help people heal and find hope and freedom.
I know that answer is just a beginning. But I think it does start at the personal and local church level. It then moves out to include colleges, seminaries, and denominations.
We need to get to a place where grace permeates every part of our lives and communities. These churches can be places where we can live vulnerably, without fear of being judged or misunderstood for our struggles.
People’s struggles with mental health and addictions can help us be the church. But, first, we must choose to be a safe, healing, loving, embracing, and vulnerable community.
Useful Links for Information, Support, and Help
Here are some links to sites for those who are struggling, and for those who support those who struggle.
1. Mental Health Issues
Reachout.com – http://au.reachout.com/tough-times/mental-health-issues
CalmClinic – http://www.calmclinic.com/
Black Dog Institute – http://www.blackdoginstitute.org.au/
Beyond Blue – https://www.beyondblue.org.au/
Headspace – https://headspace.org.au
Kids HelpLine – https://kidshelpline.com.au/parents/tips/anxiety-the-facts/
Lifeline – https://www.lifeline.org.au/
Reachout.com – http://au.reachout.com/the-facts-about-drug-addiction
Family Drug Help – http://www.familydrughelp.com.au/
Alcohol and Drug Foundation – http://www.adf.org.au
Self Help Addiction Resource Center – http://sharc.org.au
Youth Substance Abuse Service – http://www.ysas.org.au
Youth Drugs and Alcohol Advice Service (Victoria) – http://yodaa.org.au
Drugs and Alcohol Fact Sheets – http://www.health.nsw.gov.au/mentalhealth/Factsheets/Pages/default.aspx
Graham Joseph Hill
Graham Joseph Hill (PhD, Flinders University) is Research Coordinator at Stirling Theological College (University of Divinity) in Melbourne, Australia. He has planted and pastored churches, and been in theological education for twenty years. Graham is also Writer-Theologian in Residence at Thornleigh Community Baptist Church, which is a healthy, missional, and Christ-centered church in the northern suburbs of Sydney.
Graham is the author or editor of 6 books including Global Church (IVP, 2016), Healing Our Broken Humanity, (IVP, 2018, with Grace Ji-Sun Kim), and Salt, Light and a City (Cascade, 2017). He also directs The Global Church Project.
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Don’t forget to buy Graham Joseph Hill’s books:
- Healing Our Broken Humanity
- Global Church
- Salt, Light, and a City (second edition)