Christian mental health can be a touchy subject. Specifically, there is debate about what language is appropriate for the conversation. Mental health is something we all need to work to maintain, while mental illness refers to specific disorders related to brain functioning. The degree to which faith plays a role in our mental health is also a common question. This week, many tweeted on this subject using #IFGathering2018 (from a Christian women’s conference held in Austin, Texas) due to conversation there about mental health issues. There was also a heated debate about a tweet from John Piper’s ministry (Desiring God): “We will find mental health when we stop staring in the mirror, and fix our eyes on the strength and beauty of God.”
Some have wondered why we have to make such a big deal of semantics. The Piper tweet had some truth to it despite being wrong on a lot of levels (and certainly a poor choice of words for a platform such as Twitter). God will indeed restore us all eternally, and we absolutely need to fix our eyes on Jesus just to make it in this world. But since there are still so many Christians who look at mental health as a mind-over-matter type of situation, statements like that one evoke a “too soon” kind of response.
So how should Christians talk about mental health and mental illness? Here are some do’s and don’ts that can help you as you engage in conversations, both in and outside of the church:
Talk About Mental Illness
Silence is worse than missing a little nuance every now and then. Missteps in our speech allow us to engage in dialogue, while silence causes those who are struggling to feel isolated and marginalized. Pastors, work mental illness into your sermons. As much as you mention physical illnesses, mention the reality of mental illness as disorders that impact our bodies and our lives.
Use Language That Works For Other Illnesses
Someday, we’ll stop using the phrase “mental illness” altogether. In and of itself, “mental illness” creates a false dichotomy between “mental” and “physical,” as if our brains are not included in the list of major organs that can be impacted by disorder and disease. But for now, when you talk about mental illness, make sure the same phrase could be applied to other physical illnesses.
My tweet in reply to the Piper tweet is an example: “Let’s try this with cancer instead: ‘We will find our cancer healed when we stop staring in the mirror, and fix our eyes on the strength and beauty of God.’ Eternally, yes. Practically, no.”
Allow Those With Mental Illness To Define Their Own Terms
The people who get to say the most about mental illness are the ones who have faced it. Their language matters and gets to set the tone. I have known some people with depression who talk very openly about the ways that prayer and Scripture helped them tremendously to climb out of a dark time. Others have been hurt by misapplied Bible verses that made them feel more hopeless or to blame. Meet each person where they are — they get to say what works for them and fits their experience.
Use Names of Mental Disorders Casually Or As a Joke
“You’re so OCD right now…”
“Our perspective can be so schizophrenic…”
“We’re all ADD nowadays…”
Most of the time, people who are speaking like this have no idea what the disorders to which they refer actually involve (references to schizophrenia are often very misplaced and inaccurate even if the comparison was appropriate, which it isn’t). People in your audience are struggling, or they know someone who is. Casual references to deeply painful experiences are extremely insensitive. Your words matter, so don’t be surprised when you tap on someone’s pain if they get more than a little upset about it.
Tell People To Have More Faith Or Pray Harder
This one gets me because it isn’t even a good understanding of the Gospel… If the strength of my faith or the muscle of my prayers is what can heal or save me, then I have radically misunderstood what seemed like an obvious and desperate need for the power of Jesus. Healing is a God-thing, not a try-harder-thing. Good spiritual practices do play a role in mental health for all of us, but watch out for language that puts the healing back into the hands of the sufferer. If anything, you are the one who can carry that person to Jesus with the faith that you have on their behalf.
Mental health problems require proper treatment, sometimes including medication. Counseling, inpatient/hospital programs, and medication intervention are all essential to managing and improving mental health. When we as Christians speak doubtfully about treatment options, we discourage those who are unwell to get help. Imagine if you had cancer and your friends all told you that going to the doctor would be a lack of faith because God could heal you. (Sadly, I know of a situation in which this exact scenario happened and the outcome was tragic.) There are some, like those in the Christian Science religion, that do not believe in medical treatment. But Christianity does not have this as a tenet of faith, and we have no problem visiting doctors for all sorts of problems. Become educated about the mental health treatment programs in your area, including emergency services, so that you can help someone in a crisis connect with the appropriate resources.
A little attention and caution goes a long way. Ephesians 4:29 is a helpful reminder for us all:
“Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” (NIV).
May we build each other up according to our needs and benefit all who listen.