Jessica Morris shares…
As someone who lives with depression, I’ve heard most of clinical talk that comes with the illness.
Stepping in and out of therapy for over a decade, depression and anxiety are something that I have carried all through my teenage years and into early adulthood. The result is that I have become acutely aware of how the church and religion perceive and react to the illness.
So…what do you have to learn from a 24 year-old on the subject of mental illness?
I’m aware that most of you reading this have many more years of life experience than me. Many of you would have been Christians longer than I have been alive and some may even have theological training that will indubitably outweigh mine.
But I do have something to offer, something which I hope will shed light on what some Christians still regard as ‘the taboo topic.’ I have my story.
And, as an active member of the church community, I am able to speak as one of many who struggle on a daily basis with mental health issues. It is my hope that by telling my story, you will better understand the people in your church community.
My story began as a classic PK – Pastor’s Kid. My parents were ministers and later active leaders in the church. As opposed to one of those PKs who dive off the deep end and completely divert from Christianity, I was at the opposite end of the spectrum. I was a picture perfect church kid. Jesus was my best friend. I loved him, and everybody knew it. I was at church related activities at least four times a week, and was known in school for singing church songs to my peers.
Statistics tell us that one in five young people experience mental illness, and as I entered puberty I became that ‘one.’ The events of 9/11 stunned me, and I became afraid of leaving the house. I didn’t want to go to school or church. I didn’t want to see people, because I was afraid of everything. Thankfully my parents were aware of the symptoms of depression and had me enter counselling for the first time.
As I grew older, I simply stopped attending church. My belief in God was still there, but it became apparent to me that my faith did not rest on my church attendance. Things were touch and go for a long time; I was suicidal, I had obsessive thoughts about self-harm, and I missed more school than I care to remember. Honestly, I felt like a walking corpse.
The greatest need – genuine love
Age 14 is young – but it isn’t too young to question God about life. In those moments I didn’t need clinical jargon or hellfire thrown at me. I didn’t need someone to tell me the spiritual ramifications of suicide, or that I was backsliding in my faith. I just needed love, because in those moments I needed to know that I was alive for a reason.
Today, as an active member of the church, I know how I would automatically respond to a 14 year-old who is going through what I experienced. Could be a girl or guy…let’s say it’s a young girl who doesn’t go to church.
But only when she was good and ready, would I bring her to church. Why wait? Because coming to church in itself won’t fix her ‘problem,’ but Christianity-based community care sure will help.
In reality this applies when we reach out to people outside or in the church, whatever age they may be!
As leaders and members of the church, and demonstrating genuine love and concern for others – whether they go to church or not – we have a heart that cries for people. We feel their burdens and we long to see the power of God manifest in their lives so they can experience freedom.
When people have a physical illness – a broken arm, disease or cancer, we pray and believe for healing. We cook them meals, take care of their children and ask them how they are feeling.
The hard yards
But when people display signs of mental illness – such as depression, extreme anxiety, schizophrenia or PTSD, we can waver in our response to them. It is easy to pray for the healing of something we can see or measure, to be like Christ when we see a problem able to be ‘fixed’ through medicine or divine healing.
The reality is that it is much harder to pray for healing when a person is vocalising the voices in their head, or is questioning their will to live. So we avoid them, or we judge them, or we offend them simply because we don’t understand.
But there is good news. Because even though we don’t always understand what people with mental illness are feeling or experiencing, we can love them.
The body of Christ reached out to me in the one public place I would go – my school. I had teachers sit down and ask me how I was.
In love they congratulated me on the small victories; on the full days of attendance, and later the full weeks. When I said, ‘I feel sick,’ due to anxiety they allowed me to sit out on activities. And as I improved, they encouraged me to re-enter things that once had me paralysed with fear.
Eventually when I felt ready to return to church, the youth group there accepted me with open arms.
No quick easy solution
There is no easy solution to mental illness, and I can’t promise you won’t have awkward moments with people in whichever church you attend.
But I can assure you that your consistent presence in their life, even if they don’t regularly attend church, will make a difference. I can assure you that a listening ear and your gentle encouragement that they seek professional help will have a lasting impact on their life.
The church needs to approach mental illness like any other sickness. So we …
- Ask people how they are feeling
- Love them as Jesus does
- Walk with them on the good and bad days
- Pray with them for healing
- Encourage them to seek professional help, just as we would tell a person physically ill to get medical advice and treatment
- Don’t give up on them.
We don’t need to be scared or unnerved. We simply need love as we long to be loved. My testimony is that genuine love and caring can – will – help someone rise from the ashes of mental illness and become whole again.
Today I can say I am in recovery. I still struggle with mental illness, but I continue to heal and manage my condition. And I’ve found God’s purpose for my being – why I am alive.
A large reason I can do this is because I have found a church community willing to embrace me. I am glad God continues to reach out to me in my struggles, because through this he has not only given me the strength to overcome conflict, but has opened my heart to see the beautiful love available within the church for me, and for the world.
A freelance journalist covering the interaction of modern Christianity and music, Jessica Morris assists in a variety of roles at Waterfront Christian Church, Geelong, Victoria. Link: www.jessicamorris.net / firstname.lastname@example.org