Why Mental Health Is Important To Me
During the month of May these blog articles are going to be focused on some aspect of mental health. We are doing this because May is Mental Health Awareness Month. For the first forty-eight years of my life, I did not give much consideration to the topic of mental health. It’s not that I was unconcerned about mental health, but those words did not register on my pastoral radar in a way that caused me to take notice. My own turnaround began when I went to counseling during the sabbatical our church extended to me. I felt the effects of being unhealthy in my mind, heart, and body, but I did not understand how to repair things. My health was deteriorating, I could not stay focused, I was despondent most of the time. I reasoned that I just needed to exercise more, to focus more, to think on positive things more, study more. Or maybe I needed the challenge of a new project. One thing was common in my thinking – everything needed more. Inside, I was exhausted. What was very concerning to me, and this is the only way I know how to describe it, I felt the real “me” had slipped away. I had become two different people. Not intentionally for the purpose of trying to deceive people. I was a “pastoral” self when with others yet in my mind I wondered if God noticed at all what was happening. Did God even care?
It was in the first or second session with my counselor Dave at Serving Leaders when he concluded, after gleaning what seemed like a boatload of information from me, said very naturally and confidently, “You’re burned out.” With those words came some relief as with a diagnosis that gives some certainty. But overshadowing that momentary relief was shame. Huge, suffocating shame. I was embarrassed. I had always thought weak people burned out. People who could not hold up under pressure. I mean hadn’t we all used the illustration in a sermon of how diamonds were formed – under pressure! Buckle under pressure, no diamonds. It’s that simple right?
Mental health is important to me because I did not care for my own mental health. I don’t think it was because of a hardcore resistance to the subject. I did not understand some things. I oversimplified other things. I assumed things about Christian growth and what that meant for our minds, hearts, and emotions. I guess I naively thought that if I got what I believed right that my mental health would be, well, healthy. If something was wrong, then I needed to put in more work on my belief system. I also wrongly assumed that if we practiced church the right way, and if you as a church member followed the program of activities, you would be ok. Of course, we would all struggle with worry and anxiety and fear at different points in life. Those things are normal. But ongoing more complex difficulties must be evidence of some greater spiritual need. Now, I know you may be thinking that there is a lot of truth in what I just wrote and it’s not all wrong. That is true. What we believe is very important. But there are some people of the past like the renowned preacher Charles Spurgeon who was a devout man in his walk with God yet struggled with severe depression most of his life. He often spoke of this in his sermons. What did I think about someone like Spurgeon? I don’t know. All I know is that I was never pressed to consider whether a person could wrestle with mental health issues and be a true, devoted follower of Jesus at the same time.
Mental health is important to me because Jesus is concerned for our whole person. God created us to be more than spirit beings. We are embodied people who have physical, emotional, relational capacity to us as well as spiritual. All those parts have brokenness to them because sin has affected not only every person, but every part of every person. This means we are broken spiritually, emotionally, mentally, and physically. I think it is much easier to grasp this in a physical way. If someone breaks an arm, we will not think to tell them to just believe a set of Bible verses and their arm would automatically heal. But for some reason if a person has a mental brokenness such as depression, repeated attacks of anxiety, or fears triggered by certain events, we may wrongly assume that all they need to do is believe Bible truths to victory over these maladies. Without a doubt, believing God is critical. It is the lifeline we have what we need. Jesus was afflicted by human brokenness even in his mental capacity. The only difference is that he never sinned. Jesus was the “man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3). He bore our griefs and “carried our sorrows” (Isaiah 53:4). Jesus knows what it is like to carry heavy pain both physically and mentally. His resurrection assures for the Christian that one day all will be made perfect. But for now, we will carry brokenness. Believing people can struggle and Jesus will not discard them (Matthew 12:20).
Mental health is important to me because of people who talk with a hushed, lowered voice. Over the years as a pastor, people will come and want to talk about this or that going on in their lives. The conversations that I feel the weight of are those when the person lowers their voice and leans closer to tell me something. These conversations usually involve a medication they are taking to fight depression or anxiety. I am sure some of it is just simple privacy, but I cannot help but think there is some shame and fear there too. Fear of what people will think if others know they are struggling with something ongoing. Fear of being labeled as someone who is not trusting God. I heard someone say there is more honesty in church basements than in church sanctuaries. Many twelve step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous meet in church basements and there is an honesty in the group. Church sanctuaries, not so much. Why? Fear, shame, embarrassment. This has to change. Jesus is full of grace and truth and we should strive to grow in both. Truthfulness about our lives and the grace to bear burdens with others.
Mental health is important to others too. Over the last few months we have formed a mental health team of people at church. We are not counselors nor are we experts. What we are striving to do is raise awareness and help lower the stigma in talking about mental health. We want to help others to open their lives up to be honest. Over the next month you will be reading blog articles from this team. This is our mission: Helping one another find truth and peace in the struggles of mental health.
Lamentations 3:21 “But this, I recall to mind and therefore I have hope.”