Everyone has problems and struggles from time to time and some people have serious problems, including mental health problems. Unfortunately, mental health issues have a stigma which is not associated with other problems like physical sickness or injury. Some even question whether Christians can have mental health problems. Mental health problems fall into a variety of areas which includes medical, clinical diagnosis like depression, mood and personality disorders, anxiety and stress disorders and ranging to more general problems such as stress, grief, persistent sadness and burnout. I want to focus on 3 questions for followers of Christ:
Do Christians suffer mental health problems?
Quite simply, the answer is yes. Christians are people and people of all sorts, including Christians, suffer from mental health problems. The Bible shows us examples of people suffering various kinds of mental health issues and there are many prominent Christians who have talked openly about their own problems. Here are is one example:
Mr. Spurgeon is one of the most famous pastors in history, who served the Lord faithfully for many years, including leading a church in London for 38 years and yet he spoke frequently of his struggles with depression. He pointed people to God’s ability to cure depression, but also about the frequency of his depression. God cured his depression over and over again, whenever he struggled with it he learned to turn to God and find help. He is a good example of how those who serve the Lord can continue to serve Him even as they struggle with depression and other problems. Many pastors have spoken of the struggle that comes with serving the Lord and how low times of being down often follow spiritual highs.
If you read the book of Psalms, you find many different emotions. The emotions represented are not all positive. There are many Psalms of lament, more than a third of them in all. A lament is a cry out to God from a place of anguish or despair. Here are some examples:
David shows us what “a man after God’s own heart” truly looks like. It can be someone who struggles with a soul that is cast down, who cries frequently while he waits on God’s deliverance and who is weary, greatly troubled and languishing. This may not have the same vocabulary as depression and anxiety, but as a counselor if someone were to describe their symptoms like David, I could diagnose them with a modern mental health diagnosis. Real Christians can have real struggles, including mental health struggles.
Why do people suffer from mental health problems?
- Physical Issues – Does sleep impact how well you do on a test? When I was in University, I could go on less sleep for a while, but if I did it too much, I would start to notice the difference. As you get older, you will realize how important it is. If you don’t have enough rest, it also impacts the way you treat other people. You can say unkind things that you would never say under ordinary circumstances. What about your diet? Have you noticed that what you eat impacts how you feel? One of the reasons we have mental health problems is because of physical issues. This includes things like rest and diet, but also what is called a chemical imbalance. Some people are born with a brain chemistry that is or can become out of balance. This can cause psychosis, depression and anxiety, among other difficulties. Fortunately, there are doctors who can help with these issues in the same way you might have a doctor treat a broken arm or operate to help with another medical issue. God has allowed doctors and researchers to discover helpful medicine that can treat these imbalances effectively, in coordination with other therapies. For good mental health, we need to take care of ourselves physically. When we eat better and get better rest it is easier to stay healthy.
- False beliefs – In John 8:31-32, Jesus said – “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” Truth is freeing and if our minds are not centered on the truth, we will experience many issues, including mental health issues. Things are either true or they are not true, but sometimes, we get out of sync with the truth. When we believe things that are not true, it puts us at odds with reality. Look at the following diagram:
Here are a few examples of how this plays out. Let’s take something simple, like gravity. If I step out the window, I will fall to the ground, right? We all agree on that truth, so we live our lives according to that truth. But if someone believed gravity didn’t exist, it would have a pretty big impact on their life right? So, gravity is true, but the person believes it to be false and that creates problems.
Here is another example. The earth is not flat. At one time, people believed that the earth was flat, but now if you believe that the earth is flat and tell other people about it, you will probably have trouble getting a job.
What about a more personal example. Here is the truth: Relationships and community are important. Generally, most of us would agree that having relationships with other people is healthy and an important part of our lives. But what if someone starts to tell themselves the lie – I don’t need anyone. That is probably mostly a lie to themselves and most likely they will end up hurting themselves more than anyone else if they believe that lie.
Let’s look at a negative example. Lying will help me have a better life. Most Christian people would agree that this is a false statement, but some people actually build parts of their life on this. For example, “people at church would never accept me if they knew about…” Or, “I really like this man or woman, but they would never like me as I really am, so I need to show them something different.”
The greatest problem with false beliefs is when we have a false belief about God. If we don’t take the promises of God seriously and accept the truth of the salvation we receive from Jesus Christ, we develop a world view based on ourselves and the things we have done, not on who Jesus is and what He has done. These are a few examples of how false beliefs can impact our mental health.
- Sin – A very specific area of false beliefs is what we believe about sin. Sin can bring many different problems, as well as the consequences we might face from sin. When we have done something wrong against another person, we might suffer broken relationships. We also can experience guilt over our sins. Guilt that actually leads to repentance isn’t so much a problem, but guilt that builds up in our lives when we continue to do something we know is wrong can lead us to a very difficult place. We all sin from time to time and God has given us His Holy Spirit to lead us to repentance. If we think about our truth square, we can apply it to sin as well. When we look at the world and recognize sin the same way God does, we have a healthy view of the world, especially if we live our lives by that world view. But if we say something is not a sin that God calls a sin or vice versa, then that can lead to unresolvable guilt or destructive personal tendencies.
- Spiritual oppression – Sometimes people can experience mental health issues because of a spiritual issue. In the Bible, we see mental health issues that seem to be the result of evil spirits and we see Jesus and the disciples casting demons out of people. In the US, most people have never experienced anything like this, but in other cultures, demon possession and evil spirits are a common part of their world. In my studies, I find no evidence that a Christian can be directly controlled by a demon, but some passages indicate a form of oppression or temptation that we’ll call spiritual oppression. Thus, some mental health issues may be related to this. The Bible seems very clear that through the power of the Holy Spirit and the promise of Scripture that, “You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the One who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world” 1 John 4:4 We can trust that all Christians have the power to overcome this type of Spiritual oppression, they only have to make use of it.
- Suffering great trials – The last area that mental health problems come from is when dealing with a great period of suffering or trial of some sort. Many people can go through life with very little mental stress or problems and with very little experience in dealing with those things. Suddenly, they have a major health crisis, a great tragedy or personal loss and they are not only dealing with the difficult situation, but find themselves struggling both mentally and spiritually. The Bible has many examples of this, illustrated in the Psalms and in the lives of individuals in both the Old and New Testaments. Jeremiah was a suffering prophet. Paul had some type of affliction that he prayed to be relieved of, but wasn’t and David despaired when he was on the run from Saul and when he was cast out of his home by his son. Trials can lead to mental distress alongside physical suffering.
How can Christians deal with mental health issues?
- Trust the promises of God – We need to meditate on truth, including Biblical Truth, by Bible reading and memorization. Instead of focusing on what you think about yourself, read the promises of what God has said about you.
- 2 Corinthians 4:16 “Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day.”
- Romans 7:24 “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? 25 Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in my sinful nature a slave to the law of sin.”
- 2 Timothy 1:7 “For God has not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.”
- Stay in community – Don’t isolate yourself, but keep close to trusted friends and Christian community.
- Proverbs 12:18 “There is one who speaks rashly like the thrusts of a sword, But the tongue of the wise brings healing.”
- 1 Thessalonians 5:11- Therefore encourage one another and build up one another, just as you also are doing.
- Ground our minds in the Truth from both Scripture and other sources. Surround yourself with truth.
- Jeremiah 17:9 “The heart is more deceitful than all else And is desperately sick; Who can understand it?”
- Find a trusted friend or pastor to talk to. Spurgeon, who we mentioned above, found special solace in his relationship with his fellow minister and former slave, Thomas Johnson. I highly recommend this book that talks about their relationship.
- Proverbs 11:14 “Where there is no guidance, a people falls, but in an abundance of counselors there is safety.”
- Don’t be afraid to bring your laments to God in true honesty – As we saw in the Psalms, David models bringing our troubles to God and we should never be afraid to do the same.
- See a professional counselor when necessary and encourage others to do the same.
Christians should lead the way in seeking to have a “sound mind”, “renewed day by day” and grounded in our hope. We should recognize the struggles of mental health in ourselves and others and reach out with great compassion in order to be the first in line to provide help in all it’s necessary forms. When there are broken hearts and cloudy days, we ground our hope in Christ and with care and understanding we seek mental and spiritual healing with great humility. Our hope is not based on ourselves, but in Christ and in His promise of the Holy Spirit, who is interceding for us day by day.