Terrible Things Evangelicals Say About Mental Illness

I recently moved to a new house, and as is often the case when big life changes arrive, my mental health collapsed. It doesn’t matter that it’s a good change – my deep reptile brain doesn’t understand the difference between positive and negative change, it just feels the disruption and responds with panic.

After over a week in my new home, I’m feeling better. I’m starting to adjust, and settle in to my new life. But the move has been a stark reminder that my mind is fragile, and that I need to practice care and caution when navigating change.

My recent bout of severe anxiety and depression has made me think, for whatever reason, about the way Evangelical people close to me have responded to my mental illness over the years. If you struggle with mental illness yourself, you probably know them well. Here are some of the more egregious examples, listed in no particular order.

“Maybe you should get healing ministry or have demons cast out of you.”

Let’s start with the most extreme and bizarre. This was the very first response to my mental illness I ever had in my life, when I was in middle school. I didn’t have the language to describe it as depression — all I knew to say was that the world felt dark and scary. A mentor in my church, who I respected, told me that I should have demons cast out of me. Not go to a doctor, not talk to a counselor, not explore the causes of my depression, no. Have demons cast out of me.

This was the prototype of an ongoing theme in my life, until I finally left the evangelical world in my mid twenties. Numerous people told me to get prayer ministry or deliverance ministry (having demons exercised from me.) This ultimately left me feeling belittled and unheard. No, I wanted to say, this isn’t a spiritual thing. This is a medical issue, and I need help. I desperately need real, tangible help. But the community around me never gave it to me.

“You are victorious in Christ. Why are you still dealing with this?”

Sympathy in my Christian community often gave way to resentment and impatience when their spiritual solutions didn’t work. One of my colleagues asked me how I was doing, and I told her: I’m feeling down, I’m depressed, I’m struggling with my sexual orientation, I’m having nightmares every night, I’m don’t understand why I should invest in my life or future. And she responded with disdain, “Why don’t you claim your victory in Christ and get over this?”

“But you’re on meds …”

In my mid twenties, I finally started to find help. I found an excellent therapist, got on meds, and life began to improve. For the first time in years, I could simply sit and read a book, or play a video game, and be ok. For the first time, I experienced the ease and stillness of the present moment, without invasive anxiety. My whole life underwent a Renaissance.

I went out to coffee with a Christian friend, and I expressed to her my immense joy at finally being able to experience life free from despair, mania, or crushing anxiety. I told her, “This is the happiest and healthiest I’ve ever been in my life.”

She looked at me pityingly and said, “But Stephen, you’re on meds.” She didn’t believe me. She felt that the meds were an artificial correction, proof of my failure, and that I was, in fact, still deeply broken. She couldn’t accept my growth. Again, I felt belittled, misunderstood, and unseen.

If you’ve lived with mental illness, you are probably familiar with some of these responses, and many more.

Now, I’m fortunate enough to have friends who don’t judge or ridicule my brain, but are content to sit in my company. When I suffered my meltdown after the move, and I was sobbing in my bed, I texted Matt, my podcast colleague from Rock Candy Recordings. He invited me to a bar, and we spent the afternoon together. He didn’t judge, condemn, or fix. He was just a friend, content to be in the presence of someone who wasn’t ok. His ease in my presence was the first step for me out of the terrible hole I’d fallen into.

What’s your experience of mental illness in a religious setting? Let me know in the comments.

One thought on “Terrible Things Evangelicals Say About Mental Illness

  1. So sad that people go through what you experienced. I am sure most of the people you dealt with meant things for your good, but they certainly did not handle things the right way. So often within the institutional church people seem to think everything is a spiritual problem and has a spiritual solution. Yet we live in a world where many of the answers and solutions are not spiritual. I believe God has given gifts and abilities to people to learn what causes health and mental issues. He has also given solutions that are by natural treatment and medications. I do believe sometimes things happen that are beyond explanation other than a miracle by God, but this is the exception and not the rule.

    Like

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