The word stigma is defined as “a mark of disgrace.” People who experience mental illnesses are often stigmatized. They are treated as inferior, and generally misunderstood by a society that prizes pulling-up-by-bootstraps kind of living. Those who appear weak are left out and have a harder time navigating the structures and systems of a society based on high productivity.
The church is a body of people who believe in something different. We believe in a loving and merciful God who has come to rescue us. We believe that we are all weak sinners who need a Savior. And yet in this very group of people there exists a stigma when someone is struggling with depression, anxiety or other clinical mental health disorders. How does this fit with the Gospel? How can there be second-class Christians?
Short answer: there are no second-class Christians. But there are some who judge others, and it hurts the cause of Christ. Colossians 3:12-14 says,
“Since God chose you to be the holy people he loves, you must clothe yourselves with tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds us all together in perfect harmony.”
What if we acted with tender hearts when someone admitted they were struggling with suicidal thoughts? What if we showed mercy instead of judging what they “should” do? What if instead of answers, we sat with humility and were okay with answers like, “I don’t know”? What if we were patient enough to walk alongside someone with chronic depressive episodes? What if we made allowances for struggle and pain? What love-clothes could we wear that would bind us all together no matter what we were going through?
If we as the church did these things, I’ll tell you exactly what would happen: people would come in droves to find out who this Jesus-person is. And to be honest, the churches I know of that are living this out are experiencing significant growth. People want to be loved. They want to be accepted. They are already stigmatized and marginalized by the world. They want protection, not judgment. Stigma is the opposite of the Gospel because it judges instead of loves. It condemns instead of showing mercy. God has made allowances for whatever you are going through, can you extend that to a neighbor who has a struggle different from your own? May love begin to define us once again as we seek to follow Christ.