For far too long mental illness has been associated with spirituality or, more rather, the lack of it. It’s a complex issue, and conversations surrounding it is often challenging. Why is this? Why does society find it taboo, deeming it something we just don’t talk about?
I’m here, speaking and listening, jumping head first into this very important conversation.
I come to this conversation through my experience of growing up in Christian Fundamentalism as well as a front row seat to watching a loved one battle depression and multiple suicide attempts. Both of these gave me feelings of dread and embarrassment I carried for many years. The stigma accompanying mental illness overshadows individual bodies, their brains, and welfare, reducing their value to an oversimplified concept of sin.
Not too long ago, I reached out in a post on social media, telling my friends without too much detail that I just didn’t understand why things had to be a certain way. I was upset and disappointed for a dear friend, but the perception was that I was battling depression. This was unintentional, but it led to an opportunity for others to comment and began a conversation that only a few years ago I would have avoided entirely.
One of those comments, from what I believe was a well-meaning Christian, suggested that we all struggle, but when we confess our depression as a sin then God offers forgiveness in this battle.
The comment took my breath away. Momentarily stunned, I found myself rereading the words, looking for a way that I may have misunderstood. I started to remember that I had been down this road before, walked it with a loved one and it was probably one of the hardest things I had ever done. For so long, I refused to give in to that mindset of “this is not a mental health issue, it’s a faith issue,” “it’s a sin problem, just confess it and you’ll be all right.” My post on social media has brought the topic back to the forefront of my attention.
It’s an outdated, unscientific advice and yet, I know it’s widely accepted. Over and over and over again it was preached, taught, embraced by Independent Fundamental Baptists our entire lives. This unhealthy and hurtful point of view was all I knew for a very long time. Witnessing someone I love battle this form of “spiritual warfare” was honestly terrifying. Mental illness was depicted as demonic, unnatural, ungodly, something to fear.
Depression was taught to be caused by sin, resulting in sin, and the remedy was to repent of it as sin. Confess it and you’ll be alright. God is greater than your problems. Believe, have faith, remain grateful, keep your heart and mind clean, and you’ll find yourself concentrating not on your problems but on the blessings you have received.
Being positive, “looking on the bright side” can be powerful. But an overemphasis on the positive undermines the reality of many human struggles. Most dangerously, it reaches for a magical cure from Scripture, but neglects the person who feels they cannot take another step, let alone concentrate on anything other than the darkness that swallows them up.
The reason why Christians and other religious people spiritualize mental illness is because of their fear and anxiety.
Let me explain:
If you are in a state of melancholy (a commonly used word to reference depression) you are not right with God. To be not right with God, is sin and stands in the way of communion with God. In order to remedy this, you must confess the sin to clear the path towards regaining fellowship with God.
This was the fear and anxiety I carried. I did not want to lose contact with God. I needed to know He was listening to my concerns and struggles. I needed to be faithful and godly. I wanted to be used to bring glory to His name. My battles would prove this by “fighting the good fight” and relying on His Word to bring me through.
The Bible can be a comfort, but it’s not a cure. This was something I had to learn in the case of my loved ones. After trying all the things that were taught, they had to turn to professional help. Reaching out and taking that step was to watch courage in action. I began to see that those who struggle with mental illness are beautiful and brave individuals.
The stigma fell away. I learned it was not just a simple case of “mind over matter”, self-centeredness, sinfulness like the preacher preached. They were human, just like me. Like all of us. We live, breathe and co-exist with believers and nonbelievers alike, each experiencing our own tragedies and triumphs, all overcoming the odds.
The thing about walking away and finding freedom from fundamentalism is that for some of us, we just can’t keep quiet about everything anymore. Part of finding healing after spiritual abuse in my case is to encourage others to seek help when it’s needed. It’s not something to be ashamed of. There is help and support for people who need it.
The brain is an organ in your body and just like any organ it can malfunction, get sick, and sometimes we just have to find a doctor that can help find healing. To seek help is not spiritual failure. We can be free.
Photo by Unsplash
About Lydia Joy
Lydia Joy is a childhood sexual abuse survivor and former member of the Independent Fundamental Baptists (IFB) where she was born and raised, until leaving in her early twenties. She hopes to help others by sharing her story. There’s freedom in questions.