I love the movie Silver Linings Playbook, because it deals with mental health issues in a real way. The lead characters both suffer from different conditions affecting their ability to live day to day, and their interactions with those who are deemed “normal” in the film are quite remarkable.
There’s a lot of pressure to be “normal” here in Australia and New Zealand, especially amongst men, where mental toughness is highly praised. In New Zealand it was great to see a campaign led by former All Black Sir John Kirwan which talked about depression, but mental health remains a difficult thing to talk about openly. Beyond everyday society, I’ve found that church can actually be one of the hardest places to suffer from a mental health issue.
Like many young Christian men, I’ve struggled with mental health. As a teenager, I had long periods where I couldn’t lift myself out of the emptiness I felt. As a youth group leader, I would often have days when I just wouldn’t talk to anyone, in fact I would walk around feeling like a dark cloud was following me, and scowl whenever someone tried to interact with me. I was a high achiever, but I felt like no one knew the mental struggles I faced, and I was always very hard on myself if I made a mistake or failed somehow. My church was generally supportive, but the thing that made it hard to open up was what was being implied.
We talk a lot about overcoming in church. We love to quote Bible verses on the topic like “Through Christ we have overcome the world“, “Victory is ours through Christ” and “Put on the armour of God and you will be able to stand against the strategies of the Devil“. Now these are all great scriptures, designed to encourage us. But there’s an implication that comes with this focus on overcoming. If you’re not overcoming, you must be weak in your faith, or you mustn’t be trusting Jesus enough, or maybe you’re not even a Christian, because Christians overcome. If you don’t conquer those demons, you mustn’t have faith.
And this culture of overcoming breeds trouble throughout church. People in congregations don’t want to appear to be lacking in faith, so whenever it’s time to meet with others Christians, the brave face comes on, and the struggles are downplayed. “Yeah, I’ve been feeling a bit down, but I’m believing for my breakthrough!” “I had a tough week, but God is good!” “I had to wipe the door handle 16 times before I left the house, but that worship time was just what I needed!” It’s only when we stop pretending we’re okay that the tears come, and that normally only happens in a very select environment, like an altar call. Once we’ve prayed about the issue with someone, we begin to act as if it’s all sorted, and move on. It’s like we’re uncomfortable to face up to the truth: mental health issues are real, and we need to talk about them.
Because this culture of ignoring mental health is leading to major leadership blowouts. Phil Pringle once pointed out that Christian Ministers face some of the highest expectations of any profession. If someone isn’t completely mentally together, how could they lead effectively? And with that critique, problems are hidden away in a dark place, normally to only eventuate when a major situation of fraud or misdemeanor arises, bringing hurt and shame to all involved. I was talking with a colleague whose husband was a minister for a number of years. During that time, she ended up talking about all her current problems as if she had already dealt with them, because when she mentioned to church members that she was struggling with something, they simply couldn’t understand – she was the Pastor’s wife! How could she have any problems?
And there are problems, especially amongst our young people. Young Christians are struggling with anxiety, depression, eating disorders and more. The pressure to keep up a good face is intense, so our young people fake it. They turn up week on week until eventually something cracks, and everyone asks “How did it come to this? They seemed so normal!” We need to remove the stigma from mental illness, and replace it with an openness that admits that everyone struggles at some stage with their mental health – and it’s ok.
You see, the thing that really struck me about Silver Linings Playbook was that the people who were meant to be “normal” were the ones who displayed paranoia, OCD and rage issues – in reality no one was actually “normal”, but the labels put on people were used to define them. The Bible says a lot about labels. In Galatians 3, Paul writes that “There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.” This is the bottom line of Christianity. In Jesus, we can all find freedom, and hope, and a world free of labels that define us and hold us in a box.
So it’s time to talk about mental health. Time to admit that we don’t always have to be overcomers. As a Christian, I believe that mental health issues are a sign of the broken world we live in – but that doesn’t make anyone bad for struggling with their mental health. Jesus said that if you’re weary, you can cast your burden on Him, and He’ll give you rest. He didn’t say that you could never feel weary – but He did tell us to not try and deal with our weariness alone.
Let’s commit ourselves to being a Christian community that welcomes open discussion about mental health, and refuses to ignore this important issue. Let’s remove labels and stigma and replace them with grace and love.