Unworthy & Ashamed: Rising Above the Stigma of Mental Health Issues in the Church
Unworthy. It’s a word that I often use to describe myself….in my own head. You see, I’m a Christian who has mental heaIth issues. I have struggled with panic attacks, anxiety and depression for over 20 years. I’m also a licensed mental health counselor, college professor, worship leader, entrepreneur, wife, and mom. If you were to meet me face to face, I’m guessing you would never know that I have such an internal struggle.
I’m also a Jesus girl through and through. My husband and I are worship leaders and have been singing together for over 20 years. We have been on worship teams at churches large and small. The most common response when I share my true life story with someone who also professes Christianity is either (1) surprise with a tinge of judgment and projected shame or (2) surprise with an amazing expression of grace.
Oh how I wish that every time I get “real” with a Christian brother or sister that I was met with grace!
So what’s it like to be a mental health counselor and worship leader who struggles with mental illness? It’s lonely at times. Unfortunately, I also have some “church hurt.” I define “church hurt” as hurt that results when church leaders do not embrace a member of their church community with grace. Church hurt happens when a person shares their truth and they are met with judgment, and scripture is often twisted to make a person feel as ashamed as possible.
In my opinion, churches are filled with the most judgmental people on the planet. I grew up in a Christian school and have attended church for most of my life. I think I knew from a very young age that certain things were shameful in the church. I was being raised by a single mom in the 80’s. Divorce was still heavily frowned upon. We switched churches quite often because my mom was a natural leader and churches didn’t want a divorced female leading a whole lot of anything. So I was Baptist, Methodist, Evangelical Free, Pentecostal and United Brethren all by the age of 18. I was also definitely raised in the “if you don’t follow Jesus, you’re going to hell” era of fear based faith. Fear and faith don’t really go together, do they?
One of the most difficult moments for me in the church was as a young adult was when I was volunteering as a youth leader. As I was working with a group of high school girls, the youth pastor stopped by our little huddle group to talk with us. We were discussing depression. The pastor said that depression was rooted in sin and a “woe is me” mentality. He might as well have smacked me and told me I was unworthy of God’s love. I was devastated. I was also very angry. He didn’t just leave me feeling hopeless and ashamed; he left a group of teens girls feeling invalidated.
Church hurt can also be defined as spiritual hurt. Maybe it’s someone in your life that doesn’t go to church with you but they are part of your family or friend group. Have you heard one of these lies?
- You don’t need medication. You need to find peace with God.
- You wouldn’t have anxiety if you would lean more into God.
- You need to trust God more.
- Using psychology to find healing goes against the Bible. It’s from the devil.
I’ve had every one of these things thrown at me over the last 20 years. It’s why I have often kept my anxiety and depression struggles to myself while at church. I would say being a Christian with anxiety and depression is like being stranded on a deserted island inhabited by fear of rejection and judgment.
While I am currently in a church community that is very accepting, I have yet to share the real me with most people (If you’re reading this church friends, I guess the cat is out of the bag). While I think I will be met with grace, I don’t know that I will. However, this year I did entrust my worship pastor with some of my pain. His response was priceless, full of grace and love. That’s how fellow believers need to support one another. The stigma of shame associated with mental health issues MUST be broken!
I recently read If You Only Knew: My Unlikely, Unavoidable Story of Becoming Free by Jamie Ivy. She calls the judgmental reactions of others to our shortcomings as “sin shock.” I laughed out loud when I read that. We ALL react in shock to other people’s poor decisions and sins don’t we? That’s with or without being a believer in Jesus. It’s a human reaction. I believe that when we share our mental health issues with others, there is a similar kind of “shock” that makes people uncomfortable. However, within community of Christ followers, there should be a spirit of grace, forgiveness and an unrelenting and bold telling of God’s redemptive power.
It does not matter if you have heart disease, diabetes, anxiety, depression, or any other health issues. It is absolutely no person’s job to judge another based on their struggles. What you need to hear is, “You are valuable. You are seen. You are loved.” That’s the truth! This is how God sees you and me.
Here are the truth’s I cling to:
1. I am God’s child, a daughter of the Most High King.
2. I am worthy of God’s love because he sent his only son Jesus Christ to die in my place so that I may appear blameless before the throne of God.
3. My struggle with panic and depression is not reflective of how much I love Jesus. My panic and depression are rooted in genetics and my trauma history.
4. My truth and my story are covered in God’s redemption.
5. If others judge me for taking medication or going to therapy, that is not my problem. There is NO SHAME in seeking medical treatment for any condition that requires it.
Mindful Minute Prayer
“Lord, lay me bare. Remind me that you are my Provider, my Sustainer, my Healer. I praise you Jesus! I rise up in holy awe! Your grace is sufficient for me. Amen.”