Mental Health and the Church: Just 'Pray More' Not the Answer, Says Christian College Student With Clinical Depression

Prayer and scripture are powerful tools of encouragement for struggling individuals, but the church fails when it presents them as the sole cure for mental disorders, writes a college student whose friend suffers from clinical depression.

In an article for Azusa Pacific University's student publication, Alec Bleher reports that his friend reflects a concern many have when it comes to how the Christian community responds to the issues surrounding mental illness.

"One of the things that bothered me was being told I just needed to pray more or that I needed to spend more time in the word," Bleher's friend and fellow Azusa University student, Nathan Robe, was quoted as saying.  "…It was their way of saying, 'Well, you're doing this wrong and this is happening to you for a reason. It's because you don't do these things.' When you start [trying to be more 'Christian-like'] and things continue to go the way they have been, you begin to wonder, 'Am I not doing it right?'"

Bleher writes that depression, schizophrenia, bipolar and eating disorders, among other mental illnesses, require an appropriate response from the church instead of dismissing them completely.  

"We fail in a number of ways. As Christians we live under the belief that God is alive and active in the world around us. We forget that as individuals, our actions are often how God chooses to act…We are called to love each other and reach out to those who need us and yet non-Christians sometimes seem to get what we overlook. No good thought, intention or scripture can replace action," says Bleher.

The National Institute of Mental Health reports that an estimated 26 percent of Americans 18 and older suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder. Oftentimes, individuals seek professional and medical advice to treat their illness first and typically resort to the church for help as a second option,  according to a 2011 Baylor University study.

Robe, who is a Christian, has experienced firsthand what it is like to receive more support from non-believers and atheists alike than Christians themselves.

"There are times where I have had more help in most situations from my non-Christian or even atheist friends rather than my Christian friends because they understand that, a lot of the times, the help you're supposed receive is from another person, that that is the vessel that goes to help somebody," Robe said.

Although the church has the best intentions in suggesting spiritual help, Bleher writes "intentions do not change how the advice is received and the damage that is done." Oftentimes, churches simply do not understand how to handle requests from their members who are struggling.

In her book, Troubled Minds, author Amy Simpson reveals that 44 percent of church leaders are approached two to five times per year for help in dealing with mental illness. Although 80 percent of them believe mental illness is "a real, treatable and manageable illness caused by genetic, biological or environmental factors," only one out of eight say mental illnesses are discussed in a healthy way in their church.

Bleher emphasizes that the church needs to respond more appropriately to address individual's concerns because most times, their response causes more harm than help.

"Misunderstanding is the next big hurdle that stands between people, especially Christians, and being able to reach out to their peers struggling with mental illnesses," writes Bleher. "Those with mental illnesses are made to feel less of themselves and then do what is only natural; they close themselves off and suffer in quiet darkness."

Robe says the response needed is oftentimes not that difficult.

"Sometimes, one of the biggest things you can do for someone who has depression, anxiety, that litany of other disorders, is just be present, just be around," Robe said. "I can remember a lot of times where it really was just, I didn't so much want a solution, as I just wanted someone around."

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