[Editor’s Note: Everyone has mental health experiences on the spectrum between thriving and struggling. Perhaps you (or a friend) are in a season where you need extra mental, social, emotional, spiritual, and physical support. In this #mentalhealth series, we want to balance personal experience/story with input from mental health and medical professionals. We want to also explore, “How does our faith in Jesus relate to our mental health?” Our desire is to support you as you work towards mental well-being.
If you are considering hurting yourself or someone else, or you know someone who is, please contact a mental health emergency hotline. If you need urgent counselling support, Kids Help Phone is also available for young adults up to age 29 for phone calls, Facebook Messenger, or texting conversations.]
A growing disconnect
For most of my life, my spiritual communities were never spaces in which I felt comfortable sharing about my depression and anxiety. I perceived that my mental and spiritual health were completely unrelated.
Even when I brought my mental health concerns to my spiritual overseers in my early 20s, it felt extremely awkward. Some suggested that I shouldn’t delve too deeply into my mental health problems but instead focus on Bible study, prayer, and ministering to others.
I struggled with their response. My emotional distress felt minimized and brushed aside. But as a young university student without money and little awareness of mental health resources, I didn’t know there were other options. I rolled with that advice and did my best.
And so I focussed on growing my spiritual disciplines, hoping my mental health would take care of itself. As a student and then a maturing staff with P2C-Students, I tested this theory for over a decade. My mental distress not only persisted but got worse, despite my devotion to honing my spiritual disciplines and professional ministry skills.
I felt frustrated. I didn’t have the vocabulary to identify my problems. I had no one to guide me, and no recovery plan. The longer my depression and anxiety remained unaddressed, the more I experienced a lack of hope that things would ever turn around.
Depressed and emotionally alone in ministry
No one in my spiritual communities seemed to understand or acknowledge how heavy and debilitating my mental health problems were to me. Surprisingly, it was often after being part of “successful” outreaches or mission trips that I would find myself in an especially dark and even suicidal place. I felt desperate to escape mixed emotions and misunderstandings about how I was feeling.
What’s more, working on a team seemed to intensify my volatile negative emotions. I felt perpetually frustrated with myself because I experienced negative internal reactions to my teammates or external relational conflict, surfacing an ugly side of selfish thoughts and actions. I constantly struggled to love the people I worked with. I was jealous of other people’s talents, accomplishments, and social poise.
In addition, I felt a growing dissonance between my expectations for ministry and what I was actually experiencing. I felt I was perpetually lagging behind. As I tried to keep up the rapid pace of life and ministry, I was bewildered by the capacity of my peers, who seemed to move through it all with ease.
The element of fundraising for mission trips, outreaches, and conferences also led to intense anxiety. I couldn’t seem to be at peace with my limited success in comparison to others. What I was doing wasn’t necessarily the problem, but my unaddressed patterns of irrational thinking prevented any healing of my mental health.
The most relief I experienced was when I vented my confusing thoughts and negative emotions to my friends outside of work. At least I could be honest with them, but they didn’t know how to help me cope or develop a recovery plan.
Discovering deep emotions in the Bible
I grieve that most of my experience with poor mental health has been addressed outside of my spiritual community. But I wonder why my experience was like this, when biblical authors are open about their languishing mental health.
Especially in the books of Job, Psalms, Lamentations, and the prophets, so many writers express their deep grief and lament. Their words resonate and comfort my mind/body/soul. I am not alone. Yet, I never heard these emotions expressed in church growing up. Everyone seemed to have it together, and there wasn’t space for honest sharing about mental health.
Fear of weakness
This leaves me with some tough questions. How did our spiritual communities become such an intimidating place to show any weakness? Could it be that because we have made our desires for “successful spiritual lives” ultimate, we have developed a Christian culture that idolizes competence, perfectionism, excellence, big goals, success, and triumphalism?
What room is there for weakness?
In ministry environments, it’s easy to feel pressure to prove God is doing a great work through us, and so we become over-optimistic about what God is doing. Spiritual pride can invade. It’s easy to feel over-confident and self-absorbed in our ambitions, thinking of ourselves as the only ones doing good work.
Typically, my spiritual communities are still not places where I want to reveal how depressed and anxious I am. What reaction would I get if I gave any indication of the dissonance between my public image and my actual success?
In spiritual communities that place high value on success and goals, I felt afraid to share my weakness and failure for fear that others wouldn’t value me. But worse, I didn’t value myself.
Small conversations of authenticity and vulnerability
Only in recent years have I finally experienced the beginnings of a bridge between my mental health and my spiritual communities. Despite a history of separating my mental and spiritual health, I started to take some humble steps of faith to share my weakness in my spiritual communities.
At first I decided to take a few calculated risks to share my languishing mental health with a few trustworthy friends. To my surprise, all were sympathetic or said they struggled themselves. I was astonished by how many men confessed similar experiences. What started as one-on-one organic conversations eventually gave me confidence to call groups of men together to give each other ongoing emotional and prayer support.
Despite the added anxieties of developing these communities of vulnerability, God has worked through them to help me experience his love, forgiveness, and grace, especially in my darkest times of depression and anxiety.
Learning to speak up
At the beginning, most of my sharing about my mental health was confined to close friends. But over time, my convictions about being transparent about my mental health grew stronger.
One year, during an open mic session at our corporate Power to Change gathering, I shared for the first time about my depression. It was both terrifying and freeing to be so open about my weakness. For a long time, I had viewed that platform in front of my coworkers and peers as the place for sharing stories only of success.
Since that first foray into publicly acknowledging my mental illness, I have spoken up in several small group settings and I’ve been asked to share about my mental health journey on panel discussions, blogs, and most recently a video interview in partnership with Sanctuary Mental Health Ministries.
A welcome embrace of weakness
I am so thankful to see some signs of positive change in my spiritual communities. I have been encouraged by their attempts to acknowledge and promote awareness of mental health. By being open about my experience and helping others do the same, I’ve been advocating for more resources on mental health in our spiritual communities.
But I still wonder how I can better invite my spiritual communities to be a part of my personal mental health recovery, and how I can invite more Christians to be engaged in conversations about mental health. I am especially concerned for those who struggle alone.
I am an advocate. I want to help individuals within the spiritual communities around me grow in their authenticity about mental health and in their ability to respond to the complexities of health problems. Let’s raise awareness, so we can create authentic communities that help all of us who do or will struggle with mental health.
Did you enjoy this article? We encourage you to check out more articles in our #mentalhealth series.
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