I first experienced symptoms of anxiety when I was 16. A year after, I decided to pursue my calling to full-time ministry, which led me to move across various countries for the next eight years. During my travels, symptoms like heart palpitations, fatigue, and digestive issues that had started in high school began to intensify.
When these symptoms began to affect my ability to socialise and go about my work in ministry, I tried sharing about them at one of the first churches I served in. I thought asking for help from a church leader would be a good idea. But the response I got was simply, “Just pray more, trust God more.”
As the symptoms worsened to include hallucinations, brain fog, and piercing headaches, it led me to attempt suicide at one point. When my pastor at that time heard about it, he expressed his disappointment in me. He said he didn’t know what to do with me, and that I needed to manage my thoughts and heart better.
Sadly, a similar pattern followed in my experiences with other pastors and churches. For the longest time, I believed something was wrong with me spiritually, but I could never figure out what it was about my faith that I needed to tend to. Outside of church, I didn’t know where else to ask for help.
By God’s grace, my journey took a turn for the better. After nearly a decade of seeing multiple specialists, this year I finally learned of the biggest cause of the mental distress that plagued me for years—a hearing disorder that includes hyperacusis and tinnitus. Aside from causing intensely disturbing sensitivity to sound, these also contribute to severe anxiety and depression.
This isn’t a curable condition, but it is manageable through medication and lifestyle adjustment. This means I can learn to manage my social activities and intentionally look for quiet environments to recover in.
Learning this has been a huge game-changer. Understanding the issues behind this disorder has enabled me to move forward and pursue my dreams and the life I still want for myself.
Mental Health vs Mental Illness
While general mental health concerns are mostly situational (affected by feelings, work, social life, etc.), mental illnesses are psychiatric in nature (and often long-lasting).
The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines mental disorder as being “characterized by a clinically significant disturbance in an individual’s cognition, emotional regulation, or behaviour. It is usually associated with distress or impairment in important areas of functioning”.
Mental illnesses include neurodevelopmental, personality, trauma-related, eating, psychotic, anxiety, and mood disorders, among others.
Too often a person’s experience with a mental illness is compared to the average feelings of worry and stress that everyone faces in life. But a mental illness/disorder is far more intense in a way that goes beyond the common emotional experiences.
This health illiteracy frequently leads to oversight and stigmatization of people in need of serious help.
I was swept up in their love
Throughout the entire course of my living with mental disorder, there has only been one church that made me feel truly cared for. In my early years in ministry, I moved to Hong Kong and became part of a church that turned out to be where my journey towards healing would begin.
It was at that church where I was first introduced to the idea of professional help. Not only did the church understand mental health, they also made me realise that I deserved to get help. The pastor and some of the leaders listened to me as I shared about the mental and physical symptoms I had. They saw how I tried to deal with these issues and connected me with a therapist.
After my first meeting with a therapist, I felt like there might be hope for me, that it was possible to figure out what was wrong with my body. I had sensed for a long time that it was not a spiritual matter, but a physical one. I was referred to a psychiatrist, and under his care, I was finally diagnosed with clinical depression and an anxiety disorder.
Throughout this arduous process of figuring out my health issues, I received support and great love from the church. A friend would sometimes accompany me to these appointments. I was warmly welcomed to take part in church activities, where people would regularly ask how I was doing and how the treatment was going. On days when I couldn’t go out because I was unwell, friends would visit me at home.
I was not only embraced as part of the community, but also encouraged to continue in my passion for working in ministry.
I believe there is room for change
Countless times I’ve heard it said that the church is a place of healing and restoration, and if it is, I believe it should also embrace people with mental disorders. But in Christian circles, many people are not sure how to respond when told of someone with a mental disorder needing help.
In my experience throughout Asia, I have found that people (including some parts of the church) will sometimes equate mental disorder with a punishment for some alleged sin committed.
Even though the Scripture doesn’t expressly mention mental disorders, we can see examples of Bible characters who endured excruciating psychological distress: Elijah (1 Kings 19:3-4), David (Psalm 69:1-3), Paul (2 Corinthians 1:8), which shows us that our experience of mental disorder may not necessarily be due to a specific sin that we may have committed.
Another common sentiment is that mental disorder is something to be ashamed of, so some people don’t even want to be associated with a friend with such a struggle, much less learn how to support them. There’s that fear of being linked to someone “crazy”, and fear of what they don’t know or understand. Given these, it’s easier to simply avoid these situations than do anything about it.
Back to the church in Hong Kong, it was amazing that the leadership had connections to healthcare and medical professionals, to whom they could refer members to. The church also fostered a safe environment for people to talk about general mental health, as the leaders and pastors themselves would bring it up in sermons and small group settings.
Understandably, not many churches are at this stage where they have a healthy understanding of mental health and mental illness, as well as the resources to offer their members. In such cases, awareness and education will have to start from those who have the knowledge or experience in the area.
If your church doesn’t have much understanding of mental health, here are some suggestions for how you can take the initiative:
- Volunteer to share your testimony on living with a mental disorder.
- Ask permission from your church leader(s) to organise a seminar on mental disorders and invite a Christian medical professional to speak on the matter.
- Start a support group with any other member(s) who might be open to join and/or share about their own struggles with mental disorder.
- Pray for God to show you opportunities and possible ways to bring up this topic in your church, and ask Him for creativity in coming up with ideas to educate and raise awareness on mental disorders.
I think the church can help in ways like these . . .
If you’re a church leader and someone comes up to you and shares what sounds like mental health concerns, instead of immediately responding with statements like, “Oh me too! I also get anxious and tired, etc”, try your best to listen first and ask questions to know more. It’s tempting to want to have a response straight away, but in these cases, it’s more helpful to listen than to have an unhelpful “answer”.
Aside from listening, other practical ways the church can offer support include accompanying the member in need to see a doctor or a counsellor and regularly inviting these members to fellowship, church events, or meet-ups outside of church.
Doing so helps them to not become isolated and creates opportunities for you to learn how to interact normally with them. This encourages them, helping them see that they’re not just known for their mental struggles but are acknowledged as individuals, equally loved and valued by God.
It’s important that church members do these things together so that the responsibility of caring doesn’t fall on just one person. It’s also important to establish personal boundaries for those who are in the position of caring for someone with a mental disorder, so they can rest, take care of their own mental health, and protect themselves from burnout.
My prayer is that the church would be one of the first places that comes to mind when a person with mental illness is looking for help. As a sanctuary and a place of peace for all (1 Corinthians 12:25-26), the church’s support can prove life-changing for countless individuals if it would work to be equipped in directing people towards professional help and in offering tangible support as a community for people with mental disorders.
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