This is the second of a two-part series on mental illness in the church. Last week, pastors discussed scripture, theology, and attitudes surrounding mental illness.
By Riley Manning
TUPELO – In last week’s article on the church and mental illness, Bishop Clarence Parks, pastor of the Temple of Compassion and Deliverance, talked about the stigma among churchgoers surrounding depression and anxiety.
Their old-school attitude, he said, was largely one of praying the affliction away, and those who failed to do so were seen as lacking in faith.
But last spring Matthew Warren, son of one of America’s most prominent Christian leaders, the Rev. Rick Warren, committed suicide. In the days that followed, it emerged that the 27-year-old struggled with illness all his life, prompting the religious community as a whole to re-evaluate how it treats those with depression and anxiety disorders.
More questions than answers
Tony Caldwell, a Tupelo-based counselor and psychiatrist, said the forms and symptoms of mental illness have a massive range.
“To establish a working definition of mental illness or depression is so hard. Some of what we call illness is life, people dealing with changes, bumps in the road, stuff we all have,” he said. “But some are worse than that. Internally, these victims feel guilt and shame that cause them to put walls up. That isolation is like a mold, growing in dark places, and results in a sense of failing as a person.”
It’s important to note, Caldwell said, the illness isn’t always the same as it is presented. A person who is anxious or sad may communicate those feelings as anger. Caldwell said whatever the case, the victim experiences a disjointed sense of reality.
“You think of something like body image disorders, where even what someone sees in the mirror isn’t an accurate perception of reality. Mental illness causes them to mis-perceive other things as well,” he said. “That’s why it’s so important to not make assumptions and meet people where they are. Trying to fix it for them is often the opposite of what they want. Be open, have a beginner’s mind, and listen to them.”
The Rev. Mike Price, who oversees several Assemblies of God churches in North Mississippi, said sometimes the best tools can be the clinical professionals present in the congregation.
“If we truly believe in the body of Christ as some being hands, some arms, and some feet, we need to live that in this issue,” he said. “A psychiatrist doesn’t have the theological training a pastor has, so it’s unrealistic to expect a pastor to have the clinical training a specialist has.”
The Rev. Bryan Collier, pastor of The Orchard in Tupelo, agreed, and said his role as pastor lies in assisting people discover the root of their turmoil.
“Physiology is not really the church’s realm. You can’t treat a spiritual problem with a physical remedy, and often vice versa,” he said. “So when I suspect a person’s problem might lie in the physical, I ask them when was the last time they saw a counselor or had a thorough physical.”
Discernment, Collier said, takes a team. Sometimes mental illness can be camouflaged by unfortunate circumstances. On the other hand, many people he ministers to seek out depression medication to cope with grief. He pointed to Job, and said even the most prayer-filled people wrestle with anxiety and fear.
“I think we’re really quick to medicate. After, say, losing a loved one, a person shouldn’t fight off that grief,” Collier said. “If a person is using medication to escape, that’s not the answer. People who truly need medicine need it because it lets them bring themselves out of isolation and into engagement.”
Price said one key lies in understanding a victim’s lack of control. Ultimately, the problem goes beyond a mere decision. Furthermore, it’s not their fault.
“A person can’t just say, ‘I’m not going to be depressed, I’m not going to have mood swings,’” he said. “As broken as that seems, it’s part of a person’s make-up that can be redeemed. But ‘redeem’ doesn’t always mean ‘fixed.’”
Christ’s work as redemptive, he said, means God can take something bad and make something worthy out of it. The struggle of working through a bad thing, whatever that may be, can turn out to be a powerful testimony.
“Maybe it never goes away completely, but by whatever means – medicine, counseling – it can become liveable,” he said. “Who says that’s not redemption?”
As a member of the church, when people suffer from depression or anxiety, the most important thing for them to know is they’re not alone.
“The cure-all for disbelief in mental illness is to suffer from it yourself or be near it,” Collier said. “And you will never again think of it as a lack of faith.”
The community of faith, Collier said, can step in and help a person understand that what seems permanent may be only temporary.
“We can’t belittle,” he said. “We have to hold them and make sure they know we’re not going to let go.”
“The goal of the counseling world and the religious world aren’t that different,” he said. “Both try to help people access their essential self, a self outside of anxiety, insecurity, and compulsion.”