“A depressed Christian isn't a real Christian.”
His false statement rang in my ear like a noisy gong and then hung in the air like smoke, waiting to be cleared away. I wasn’t exactly sure how this conversation had started, but one thing led to another and here I was with this visitor (who happened to be a pastor) and a small group of men and women discussing the existence of depression among Christians.
It would have been a hard conversation for anyone to have, but as you can imagine for me, it was excruciating. Because little did this visitor know that I was only now emerging from the terrible pit of depression myself. Little did he know that for me this conversation was personal because I’d felt like I’d just been to hell and back. Little did he know that my heart had wrestled and my body had collapsed under the pressure of depression. But that Jesus had held me the whole way through.
Maybe you can relate. Maybe you, too, have heard those harsh and judgmental words from people who don’t understand, haven’t experienced, and can’t seem to really grasp what you’re going through.
As a licensed counselor, it breaks my heart to hear the myths and lies that Christians believe about depression and mental illness in general, and the shame that can be felt surrounding this topic. I’m so sorry if you’ve experienced it. Sadly (especially if you run in Christian circles) there’s a good chance you have.
As I’ve interacted with more and more people on this topic over the years, I’ve noticed that there are a few severely false ideas that continue to be perpetuated among believers.
First and foremost is the false notion that you must be “weak” if you struggle with mental illness, as though your struggle is a reflection of your strength. Second, and one that I hear most often, is that a struggle with mental illness signifies a lack of faith or a problem in your walk with the Lord. Third, a false statement that tends to circulate among Christians is that the only thing you need to get through the struggle is prayer and God’s Word.
My friend, these statements couldn’t be farther from the truth and cause so much damage inside people who are struggling. If you’ve ever heard any of the false statements above, here’s what I really need to understand:
1. Your Struggle Is Not a Reflection of Your Strength
Your struggle does not indicate a weakness; in fact, those who struggle with mental health issues are usually the strongest. If life is a journey, those who are living with the hardships of mental health issues are the ones who are living life with an extra 50 pounds of burden on their shoulders, yet still taking the same steps as the person next door. Steps that reflect faithfulness, steps that reflect hope, and steps that reflect remarkable and courageous strength.
Strength doesn’t mean a lack of struggle; strength means getting through each day. Strength means asking for help. Strength means understanding your limitations and resetting your expectations during times of struggle. Strength means hearing the words of discouragement yet choosing not to believe them. Strength means clinging to the truth. Strength means believing there is a light at the end of the tunnel, even when you can’t see it. And ultimately, strength means recognizing that when we are feeling weak, there is One who makes us strong (2 Corinthians 12:9-11). When God is our strength, nothing and no one can stop us. And because of this, you my friend, who are enduring this painful struggle, are one of the strongest people on the face of this earth. Don’t you ever believe otherwise.
2. Your Struggle Is Not a Reflection of Your Faith
Not only is it false to believe that struggling with mental health issues is a reflection of your faith, but it’s the antithesis of the entire message of Christ. As believers, we are never promised a pain-free, disease-free, struggle-free life. In fact, Jesus reminds us that in this world we will struggle (John 16:33). But in our struggle, we’re promised a Savior, a Comforter, and a Friend. I look back at the hardest moments I have faced with depression and anxiety, and I see Jesus right by my side. My ever-present help in time of need (Psalm 46:1).
I remember crying out one night and feeling all alone, and just then God’s presence overwhelmed me. Just when I needed it the most.
Mental health struggles have nothing to do with lack of faith; in fact, for me and for so many others, the struggle has been the catalyst for even deeper faith.
Because some days, in the hardest moments, faith was the only thing I had to hold on to. Your struggle is not a reflection of your faith. In fact, if God is near to the broken-hearted…you are closer to God in this moment, then ever before. Hold on to that truth. And continue to cling to Him no matter what anyone else tells you.
3. Your Struggle Can Be Alleviated
Through my journey of depression and anxiety, I’ve learned that faith and action go hand in hand. When we have faith, we move. When Jesus healed the paralytic at the pool of Bethesda, He told him to “get up… and walk” (John 5:8). Walking while paralyzed doesn’t seem possible — just as impossible as it often seems to be able to “live” while struggling with depression or anxiety. But Jesus reaches out His hand and tells us to get up and walk. Take the next step. Move the part of your body that you believe to be dead and dying. Take action. And trust God to give you the strength you need to take that next step. Taking action in this area of our life means understanding the role that counseling and medication play in alleviating our struggles. They’re primary means of taking initiative toward mental health, and they’re effective!
Just as we would never shame a cancer patient or a diabetic for their hurting bodies, we need to shift our perspective to see mental illness as a struggle of the brain and body. Only then will we be able to treat it in a proper way. It’s not only okay, but it’s necessary to seek therapy and then assess your need for medication. There are many causes to mental illness, and whether it’s rooted in trauma, hormones, chemical imbalance, or stress, it seeps into every part of your life. It’s up to you to make sure you’re getting the help you need and taking care of yourself no matter what anyone else thinks or believes. Don’t let cynicism, fear, or apprehension or the faulty beliefs of others stop you from giving yourself the gift of healing.
My deepest prayer is that, as a body of believers, our attitudes would shift and our hearts would change as we face this important issue — that we would create an environment where we embrace and encourage those who are struggling with mental illness and in pain, rather than pushing them away.
This article is an adapted excerpt from Debra's new book, Are You Really OK? Getting Real About Who You Are, How You’re Doing, And Why It Matters.
Debra Fileta is a licensed professional counselor, bestselling author, speaker, and host of the Love + Relationships podcast