The ‘Shallow’ Sickness

Despite the prevalence of mental illness, as a church, (at least in my experience),we don’t talk about it enough. I’m not advocating we always spill our guts over coffee or put ‘greater sexual intimacy’ on the PCC agenda. Not necessarily.  But as the body of Christ, we don’t need to hide or cover our weaknesses.  On the contrary – we’re to share them and to support one another.

I think we’re getting better at discussing depression, but there’s still a stigma there.  At worst, it can be characterised as the ‘lazy’ disease.  Recovery, (because of course this can’t be chronic), therefore requires you pull yourself together and start looking on the bright side. What sort of a Christian witness is misery, eh? You should have it together.  And if that doesn’t work, why not dose up with a generous slug of guilt? – think of all those who are worse off than you.

Then there are the ‘shallow’ diseases – such as anorexia. So, if you’re gonna get sick, then at least get something that doesn’t revolve around fashion and your appearance.  Now have a proper meal and stop being so silly.

Or the ‘crazy’ ones. Schizophrenia for example. OCD.  Quick, call in the experts!

Of course such approaches only compound the problems. And they’re labels that sufferers give themselves, as much as ones inflicted by others.  If you think the depressed Christian should brighten up, multiply those expectations by a hundred, add a dash of self-contempt and welcome to their world. When you’re in the pit, lifting your head above the parapet by meeting up with others is a big deal.  The temptation is to shut down, withdraw, isolate. In reality, we need to be invited and encouraged to join fellow pilgrims who aren’t sorted or perfect, but who continue, albeit falteringly, to trust the Lord. Because it’s about how great He is, not how good at coping we are.

Sometimes I feel like to be real is to let the Lord down. If I’m finding life tough, then if I can’t put on a happy face, I should at least shut up, or paper over the cracks with an apt verse.But Jesus doesn’t require my clumsy efforts at PR. He is a doctor for the sick, not an add-on to the perfect marriage/family/career.

7 thoughts on “The ‘Shallow’ Sickness

  1. Ditto. Watching people’s faces as they hear me explain that anorexia got worse and self-harming started, after I became a Christian has been pretty enlightening.
    I’m not denying the fairly strong vein of idolatry and sin going on there but it was also illness. You don’t usually get judgement in church when someone’s got cancer or a cold, so what makes mental illness any different. I think that’s why I don’t talk about as much as I could, because I can’t stand the judge-y looks.

  2. Real, honest, truth-full article. Thanks:-)
    Now it’s the business of learning how to be those things as church!
    We look forward to catching up soon…

  3. “What sort of a Christian witness is misery, eh? You should have it together. And if that doesn’t work, why not dose up with a generous slug of guilt? – think of all those who are worse off than you.”

    This is exactly where I find myself, particularly in light of the NT exhortations to “be joyful in trials”. While the temptation to pull away and hide is real, and can be exacerbated by the response of other believers who appear to not understand, my feelings of guilt tend to be rooted in falling short of what appear to be direct, biblical commands. Why would the writers of the epistles tell believers in Christ to “be” a certain way if we are unable to actually acheive such a state?

  4. Thanks Paul – I’m sorry this is a shared experience, but it is good to know I’m not imagining this too.

    Ellidh – as you say, why do we make a distinction between mental illness and other kinds of sickness? Especially when such judgments actually exacerbate the problems! I guess it’d be like tripping up someone with a broken leg. But when we do speak out about the things the enemy wants us to keep hidden, what a testimony to the liberation of the Gospel.

    Heather – this is a great question. But as Paul writes that we are to be joyful in trials, he’s also constantly bearing his soul about how he’s really doing – ‘hard-pressed on every side’..’despairing even of life itself’. This is an important balance or we can lose ourselves and our hope. But he shows that we can be real and keep trusting.

    Pedro – looking forward to catch-up too!

  5. You’re right – so often we get told to just cheer up and be happy – that was my expereince of depression in a church. It’s so sad that people are so unwilling to get treatment for it as well. How does it differ from breaking your leg?! You’d take things to ease the pain and get treatment then!

    The best book I’ve read on this is called “I’m not supposed to feel like this”. It’s really practical and biblical – written by Christian professionals who are know the mental illness field well. Well worth a read!

  6. Hi Sarah

    Thanks for your comments – and for the book suggestion. It’s great to have recommendations full-stop, but especially when you’ve been there yourself – I’ll definitely check it out.

    And next time someone tells us to cheer up let’s remember that violence is not the only way..:-)

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