The Mental Health Crisis Affects the Church
Mental health has never been more important than it is now. After enduring a global pandemic, millions of Americans were stuck at home unable to distract from internal turmoil with work, accomplishments, or social status. As a seminarian and trauma therapist, I can confidently say that the world (including the church) faced a great awakening of the soul. An awareness of the internal sicknesses and pains we’d been carrying as Christians. An exposing of the chaos in our hearts that mirrored the chaos of the pandemic. All that was hidden rose to the surface.
God revealed a hard and beautiful truth in this time: being a leader in the church does not make you immune to the effects of a painful past. Being a church leader does not absolve you of the responsibility of doing the mental and emotional work of healing past trauma. God has been, and still is, inviting us to live out the truth of carrying our cross daily. Through being honest about the pain that we carry, and seeking healing for it.
Our own stories of pain are echoed in the lives of our neighbors if only we dared to listen closely enough to hear them.
There are 328.2 million people in America. The majority of them—two thirds, to be exact—identify as Christians.1 At the same time, almost 50% of all Americans will experience a mental illness in their lifetime. That’s 191 million mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, grandmothers, and grandfathers who will carry pain that many won’t see. These are the people we love, the people we serve. Statistically, the majority of them are Christian. The interesting intersection of these numbers is humbling, heartbreaking, and a reminder that our own stories of pain are echoed in the lives of our neighbors if only we dared to listen closely enough to hear them.
Though it may be tempting to blame these staggering numbers of mental and emotional illness on the global pandemic, studies show otherwise. Before the global pandemic, the prevalence of mental illness was trending upward for adults and children. With 65% of Americans identifying as Christians, surely these statistics overlap.
Beneath all of the numbers and statistics is a deafening truth: the body of Christ is a part of what the American Psychological Association is calling a mental health crisis.2
So why is the church so afraid to address the mental and emotional pain that people carry? Well, I think we’re afraid because we actually don’t know how God responds to people’s mental and emotional pain. We don’t know because we struggle to see it in scripture. The intersection of mental health and faith is a place where even the most experienced Christian leaders are novices. Facing the truth of the pain in ourselves and the people we serve also challenges much of what we’ve been taught (and taught others) about leadership, holiness, and intimacy with God.
We’re afraid because we actually don’t know how God responds to people’s mental and emotional pain.
For decades we’ve conflated good leadership with stoicism, chronic positivity, and an absence of anguish; and yet, that’s not what scripture shows us of leaders in mental health crisis. The postures we hold so tightly to in our culture of church leadership often oppose the posture of the leaders that God miraculously empowers, supports, and commissions. I imagine that’s why David invites us to expose our brokenness to God instead of hiding it as he reminds us that God won’t reject the broken and the contrite heart (Psalm 51:17).
So how does God respond to believers struggling with anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation? Let’s take a look.
How God Meets the Need
Numbers 11:1-16 recounts a time when Moses is overwhelmed with what it means to lead the people of Israel through the desert. In his frustration and anguish he asks God, “Why have you brought trouble on your servant? What have I done to displease you that you put the burden of all these people on me?” (v. 11). He goes on to say “If this is how you are going to treat me, please go ahead and kill me” (v. 15).
That is what we call suicidal ideation: thoughts about or planning our own death.
How would you respond to Moses? Would you rebuke his thoughts? Would you encourage him with scripture to remind him of who he is? Would you shame him for confessing such things in such an open manner?
God responds to Moses in verse 16 by telling him to gather 70 elders to help him lead. To support him where he is in need.
In 1 Kings 19:4-5, we find Elijah in complete despair after running for his life. In utter exhaustion, Elijah lifts up his voice to God praying that he might die, and says to the Lord, “Take my life.” Again, we see suicidal ideation. As he lays down to sleep an angel comes to him and tells him to get up and eat, offering him food and water. When Elijah falls asleep again, the angel comes again to offer more food and more water.
Both Moses and Elijah express deep pain, anxiety, and suicidal ideation to God. While God never directly responds to the suicidal ideation itself, he responds to its cause. He responds to Moses’ exhaustion with communal support and Elijah’s weariness with physical provision (food, water, and rest). God is more attuned to the cause of our pain than to the ways it presents itself.
God meets the need under their expression of pain. He doesn’t dismiss their feelings as silly, immature, or reflections of their lack of faith. His actions seem to speak, “I see what you’re feeling and it matters to me. I see that you’re overwhelmed. I’m going to do something about it. I am going to give you rest. I am going to lighten your burden. I am going to show you tenderness in the midst of your despair instead of shaming you for experiencing despair in the first place.”
While God never directly responds to the suicidal ideation itself, he responds to its cause. He responds to Moses’ exhaustion with communal support and Elijah’s weariness with physical provision (food, water, and rest).
When Jesus says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11), he truly means it. The “rest for our souls” is not figurative flowery language. It’s actually what he gives. He interrupts the narratives that make us feel like life isn’t worth living and offers us rest and reprieve. When we are in despair, God provides. When we are depressed, God gives us tenderness instead of punishment, kindness instead of judgment.
What if we approached our own pain with the same curious tenderness that God does with Moses and Elijah? What if we listened to the need shouting beneath the patterns of expressing pain? What if we got more attuned to the needs of our flock than to the ways their pain shows up? Many of us have been taught to respond to mental health issues in the church with religious brow-beating, theological debates, and good ole-fashioned shaming. And yet God does something that seems too compassionate and too easy: he identifies the need, and he addresses it.
In these two narratives, we see how God responds to mental and emotional crises. His actions are a blueprint for us in the Church as we love ourselves correctly and love our neighbors compassionately.
- “In U.S., Decline of Christianity Continues at Rapid Pace,” Pew Reserch Center, October 17, 2019, https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2019/10/17/in-u-s-decline-of-christianity-continues-at-rapid-pace/.
- “Increased need for mental health care strains capacity,” American Psychological Association (website), November 15, 2022, https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2022/11/mental-health-care-strains.