Mental Health Challenges: Remove the Stigma
How has COVID affected you, your family, your church, your job, your neighborhood, your world? If you’re like about half of all Americans, the pandemic has taken its toll on your mental health—and if not yours, that of someone (or many someones) you love.
Various studies have revealed that about 47 percent of US adults say pandemic stress alone has had a negative effect on their mental health. That rings true, doesn’t it? Most of the public school teachers I know suspect the percentage is higher, expecting to see a pandemic of depression as young people return to school and compare notes about their lives for the past year. The pandemic has definitely caused a spike in the demand for mental health services. And not everybody can pay for a trained counselor. That’s where you come in. Here are some ways to help:
- Be proactive. People ache to be wanted. So befriend those who suffer, whether from depression, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia…. Let them know you want them around. Even if they decline, it helps to be wanted.
- Embrace silence. Refrain from giving advice unless asked. Instead, commit to showing up. Let people talk about their pain, if they wish. If not, no need to speak. Your presence can communicate more than words.
- Coordinate support. Prepare yourself to direct people to resources. Bear in mind that non-faith support systems can help in the same way surgeons can help with broken arms. For example, NAMI provides free speakers on the topic. Parachurch organizations offer services too. Can you host an event that provides training and resources both for people who suffer and for those wishing to minister to them? Or coordinate an ongoing informal support group?
- Get tangible. When someone falls ill, gets injured, or dies, people tend to rally around —as they should—with scalloped potatoes and chicken casserole. Helpers might mow the lawn or send flowers. Maybe they even clean toilets and offer to babysit. But when someone suffers from the agony of depression and other forms of invisible illness, that patient often suffers alone. Look around. Who needs concrete expressions of your care?
- Remove the stigma. This is the biggie. Earlier this month, I attended a conference in which Kay Warren talked about how we can apply the gospel and its ramifications to helping those who suffer mentally in multiple ways. As you may know, after a long battle with depression, Kay and Rick Warren’s son took his own life. And their family has worked to remind us that faith communities are “legitimizing forces in society.” That means we can be the solution for the number-one reason people shrink back from seeking help: stigma. If we normalize talking about depression, seeking help for schizophrenia, training lay counselors to help people through anxiety attacks, publicly mention resources for getting help—and we do so in our bulletins, from our pulpits, and in our writings—we help remove the stigma. And that’s something we all can do. Remember the man born blind—how the disciples asked Jesus if the man sinned, or perhaps his parents? Jesus answered that nobody sinned (see John 9:1–12). It’s not a sin to have a serotonin imbalance or brain wiring that misfires. And it’s cruel to suggest it is. The prophet Ezekiel chastised shepherds for failing to care, saying “You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally” (Ezek 34:4). One way we can strengthen the weak and comfort the sick is to remove the stigma.
- Read to educate yourself. Consider Amy Simpson’s Troubled Minds or Janelle Bitikofer’s Streetlights: Empowering Christians to Respond to Mental Illness and Addictions.
During my most recent annual physical, my doctor asked about my mental health—something he had never done. He mentioned the trend in depression diagnoses and told me that’s why he’s now checking in on the mental health of all his patients.
Chances are, you or a friend or a colleague or a family member have been affected. So I want to add one more suggestion directed toward those who suffer: Tell your story. And if you’ve told it and heard Bible verses misapplied to your situation, I’m sorry. Keep telling it anyway. The body of Christ needs you. When one suffers, we all suffer. Please don’t suffer alone.