You can read the first part of James’ blog here.
The church I am now a part of is very supportive and understanding of my condition. They are an exceptionally welcoming church and I’ve grown as a result of being there. In no way do I want to fault them personally. My take on the church’s attitude towards mental health applies generally; from my observations, there are two main issues that need addressing.
Firstly, mental illness seems somehow hyper-spiritualised by many Christians; that is to say it tends to be seen more as a spiritual rather than a medical problem. To illustrate: Let’s say that someone in a wheelchair is invited to a church event that is to be held in an upstairs room. Would the more common and appropriate response be to A) reconsider the venue, or B) to pray for God to give that person the strength to climb the stairs? Now switch the person in the wheelchair for someone suffering from severe depression or a condition such as my own that makes socialising emotionally and mentally draining. They may even find it a strain to get out of bed in the morning and at a social event, be close to break-down. My experience suggests that in the case of mental health the proposed solution would more likely lean towards option B, i.e., prayer alone rather than any practical intervention.
I’m in no way suggesting that solutions to mental health problems are easy – it requires patience, time, openness, co-operation, understanding and education. Nor am I suggesting that prayer is not essential in any situation or that God cannot miraculously heal any kind of ailment. My point is that the church’s attitude can often differ markedly between physical and mental issues, simply because we don’t appreciate or take the time to understand the underlying causes of mental illness and appreciate how ‘real’ it is. I don’t believe in dichotomising prayer and action. The problem is that as Christians we understand that prayer leads to action with more obvious and tangible problems, but those associated with mental health are often by nature, ‘invisible.’ This situation won’t change unless we try and improve mental health’s ‘visibility’, so to speak.
The church must create an atmosphere of openness and encourage people to talk about mental health struggles they face, without fear of being labelled an attention seeker, backslidden Christian, or any name you’d care to insert. As well as providing emotional support, this can be a start to educating ourselves as to the nature and reality of their condition. Becoming informed enables us to show genuine love and care through befriending, counselling, assisting with and providing access to the right support etc. I recently invited my counsellor to give a talk to my church on Asperger’s Syndrome. We advertised this around many local churches and Christian groups, resulting in a very impressive turn-out. I would encourage churches to consider inviting specialists to speak on mental health issues. Yes there may be a potential clash of Christian and secular worldviews, but I don’t think to an insurmountable degree, and there is much to be learned. In the case of A.S., when you take the time to learn about it (which generally most people still need to do), you will hopefully see that there is more to the issue than lack of faith, demonic oppression, apathy, or lack of will power.
Secondly, mental illness sufferers can be made to feel unnecessarily guilty over their condition when in church or among Christians. That is, to hear the message that the solution lies solely in your hands or even that God cannot bless you until you somehow make that extra, somehow elusive, bit off effort. Such attitudes appear to be increasing with a current trend for preachers, Christian authors and the like to adopt a life-coach/self-help approach in their ministries. The truth is that none of us are worthy of coming into God’s presence apart from His grace, by what His Son has already achieved for us by dying in our place and rising again. There is nothing we can do to make ourselves acceptable to and loved by God through our own efforts (Isaiah 64:6; Ephesians 2:8-9). For anyone experiencing the drain and despair of mental illness, this life-giving message of grace is surely what is needed. It is the only sure foundation on which to build, as I am now doing and with His grace, will continue to do. Anything else is only to put ourselves in the centre rather than Christ. Simply encouraging a depressed person to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, however well-meaning, can be like a kick in the ribs while they are down (not to mention robbing Christians of the desire and joy of serving the Lord). That is what the world offers, but the body of Christ can give them something so much better. Even though life is still an uphill battle and there are days when I feel my batteries are completely flat, I know I can rest in God’s grace. That is always the recharge I need.
I often find myself thinking about what my life would be like if things had turned out differently: What if I had been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome earlier, learnt about this part of who I am and been able to explore and manage the symptoms from an earlier age? But I have made the decision not dwell on this, but rather remind myself that from the beginning, God had a plan. He brought me to where I am through my experiences, helping me grow into His image, providing opportunities to serve others, so that he can work more powerfully through my weakness (2 Corinthians 4:7; 12:9: But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me).
My journey has taught me of the need for us all, including the church, to be educated about the nature of mental illness and how people are affected. We must be informed as to the support we can offer. Above all though, it has brought home to me the need for the refreshing good news of Jesus Christ, of His forgiveness and healing and that we can be confident of receiving these gifts when we ask (1 John 1:9).
If you would like more information about Asperger’s Syndrome, here is a good place to start: