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November 06, 2015

Three Helpful Truths About Mental Illness

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With the holiday season approaching, I have mixed emotions. I love the decorations, pumpkin-flavored everything, Christmas music, and candles with scents like “Frosted Snowflake” and “Fireside Flannel.”

But along with the excitement comes a twinge of dread.

For the roughly 20% of people affected by mental illness, namely anxiety and depressive disorders, the holidays can be a difficult time. More external triggers, anything from the weather to the excessive amounts of sugar we tend to consume, come into play.

There are internal triggers, too. Loneliness can be magnified against all the talk of family gatherings and parties. On the flipside, too much festive togetherness can cause anxiety and an intense urge to withdraw. Even memories from seasons past, good and bad, can create swells of sadness or fear. People without mental illness are not necessarily immune to these things, but healthy brain chemistry makes their impact manageable and temporary, instead of detrimental and lasting.

As a member of the 20%, I’m in holiday prep mode. I’m practicing healthy coping skills, planning to avoid triggers that are within my control, and seeking the Lord’s help and protection. And as I become more ministry-minded, that percentage means something different to me this year. It means that one out of every five people I interact with could be like me.

It has also occurred to me that mental illness is still, in some ways, a dark corner in Christian subculture and the church. While I won’t attempt to remedy that all in one small post, I do want to share some truths that are incredibly helpful to me and that I hope will give light to others who are members of both the body of Christ and the 20%.

1. There is something wrong.

Whether I’m in the middle of an anxiety spell or a bout of depression, nothing makes me feel abnormal like a good party, and the holidays are full of them. It’s easy for me to look at other people who seem to be effortlessly enjoying themselves and think, “What is wrong with me? Why can’t I just have fun and really be present?” The answer is that there is definitely something wrong with me. But the comforting news is that there is something wrong with everyone else, too.

We know that sin came into the world through Adam and Eve and because of that, death spread to everyone and everything (Romans 5:12). Sin corrupted every molecule of creation and made things that were created to be right, wrong. Sin birthed disease, disorder, and decay. Cells in our bodies have been corrupted to create cancerous tumors. Our joints deteriorate and become arthritic. And in the same way, the chemicals in our brains that were designed to harmonize in balance and self-regulate have been corrupted to sink too low or climb too high.

Understanding that mental illness is no more or less a side effect of our fallen world than cancer or arthritis is comforting. It takes away any stigma or shame. For me, the broken nature of sin manifests itself in my body in the form of clinical anxiety and depression. So yes, there is something wrong with me, but it is nothing that falls outside of Christ’s intentions to redeem.

2. It’s not a matter of faith.

This is where it gets tricky. According to a study conducted within the last two years, 50% of evangelical Christians surveyed believe that prayer and Bible study, alone, can heal mental illness. And I’ll admit that I wrestle with that idea, myself, from time to time.

If my faith were stronger, would this go away? Maybe I don’t really believe that God can heal me. Maybe I don’t really trust God, and that’s why I have panic attacks. If I really believed his plans for me are good, then I wouldn’t be so sad.

Scripture says that half of evangelical Christians, along with those questions that fester in my mind, are wrong. My faith didn’t cause my mental illness, and it is not the solution to it. My faith will determine how I do or do not glorify God through it, as well as how I deal with it daily, but it does not determine if or when or how I will be healed of it.

God has promised me a perfect body, including a perfectly functioning mind, one day (1 Corinthians 15:43-44; Philippians 3:21; 1 Thessalonians 5:23). I have full faith in that promise because it is part of God’s covenant with me through Jesus Christ. Does he have the ability to give me a healthy, right mind between now and then? Absolutely. Does my faith decide that? Nope.

Concerning healing from anything, our end of the deal begins and ends with placing faith in Jesus Christ for salvation and trusting that the Lord’s will is perfect, he is sovereign over all circumstances, and that all things are possible (Isaiah 46:9-10; Matthew 19:26). Even the ability to have faith is not of our own making, but an invitation from God and a gift of his grace (John 6:44, Ephesians 2:8).

3. Medication is okay and often necessary.

Speaking of what is and is not in our power to do about mental illness, medication is on the “is” list. I would even call it a gift. In his mercy, the Lord has given man the intelligence, skill, and material to create medications to subdue the effects of some mental illnesses. That is something we 20% members should be thankful for, not afraid or ashamed of.

However, I’ll be the first one to admit that’s easier said than done. Throughout my life, there have been seasons when I’ve been able to live well without the help of meds and seasons when I’ve needed them. Just recently, I decided to start taking medication again after five years of doing relatively fine without it. Through prayer, wise counsel, and some divinely orchestrated situations, it became clear to me that this was the right choice. That didn’t necessarily make it easier to accept, though. After five years of “fine,” I think I had lulled myself into a false sense of self-sufficiency. That’s the scary place to be. Admitting weakness, calling on the Lord for help, and taking that help in whatever form he sees fit to give is good and right (2 Kings 20:1-7; 2 Corinthians 12:7-12).

So that’s how faith and mental illness are not connected, and I want to end with how they are connected. When my mind is at its most fragile, the one leg I have to stand on is that the Lord has promised to keep me from all evil and to keep my life (Psalm 121:7). He is my refuge…even from my own mind (2 Samuel 22:31; Psalm 71:1, 18:2; Nahum 1:7). In the throes of anxiety and depression, there has never been a time when I have cried out to the Lord and he did not (eventually) answer me. He has provided wise counsel, supportive relationships, and sometimes just a moment of clarity long enough to see my way out.

So as another holiday season begins, those of us in the 20% can rest on the promises of God. He promises to give us joy. He is our hope. He has called us by name. And when dark days loom, he promises to be with us. We will pass through and not be utterly consumed (Isaiah 43:2).

Which of these truths is most helpful to you today? Who can you encourage with these truths?

Caitlin Plascencia

Caitlin Williams serves as the director of children’s ministries at The Orchard Evangelical Free Church in Northfield, Ill. She is a lover of good books, good conversation, and long naps.
Caitlin Williams serves as the director of children’s ministries at The Orchard Evangelical Free Church in Northfield, Ill. She is a lover of good books, good conversation, and long naps.