Mental Illness and the Christian

Most of us know someone who is in counseling, on medication, or who has even taken or attempted to take his or her own life as a result of mental illness. Among the many topics high on the list that trouble Christians today, mental health would most likely be at or near the top. Ed Stetzer wrote an article for Psychology Today (2018) in which he asks, “Why is it uniquely challenging for us to address issues often associated with mental illness?” girl gazing at sunset

It seems whenever the topic of mental illness or suicide comes up at church or among our Christian friends, we automatically wonder, Why? Aren’t we saved from these types of issues? Aren’t we healed and set free? Yet this is a conversation the church truly needs to have. Thankfully, my church does not shy away from topics like mental illness and addiction. Admittedly, suicide and addiction may be two of the most complex and demanding topics of all. Joyce Meyer and Max Lucado have written several good books on the issue of mental health. Meyer (1995) began with her seminal Battlefield of the Mind. Lucado (2017) recently published Anxious for Nothing.

Meyer notes that daily emotional ups and downs are one of the major struggles we have in life. Instead of riding the emotional roller coaster, it should be our goal to become stable, solid, steadfast, and determined. If we let our emotions rule over us, we’ll never be the person we were meant to be. Of course, we can never be completely free of our emotions, but we must learn to manage and control them rather than let them control us. Let’s be honest: Life is no fun when we’re ruled by our emotions.

It’s important to realize that emotions lie to us. They paint an inaccurate picture, typically convincing us that all is lost based on one bad day. Without any effort on our part, our brain takes in and evaluates information throughout the day. Our emotions are regulated automatically in the limbic system. The center of emotional processing and mediation of resulting behavior—defensive versus aggressive—is the amygdala. The limbic system is also responsible for memory. The amygdala has been the focus of study for decades. It’s been stated that emotional memory (how we respond to pleasant, unpleasant, fearful, and painful situations) occurs long before we develop language skills. I believe the formative years of 0 to 5 are critical relative to formation of our personality and to how we handle situations in the future that remind us of painful experiences from our past. This is, perhaps, the very basis for emotional baggage.

Anxious for Nothing

Lucado (2017) describes anxiety in a manner worth repeating here:

“It’s a low-grade fear. An edginess, a dread. A cold wind that won’t stop howling. It’s not so much a storm as the certainty that one is coming. Always… coming. Sunny days are just an interlude. You can’t relax. Can’t let your guard down. All peace is temporary, short-term. It’s not the sight of a grizzly but the suspicion of one or two or ten. Behind every tree. Beyond every turn. Inevitable. It’s just a matter of time until the grizzly leaps out of the shadows, bares its fangs, and gobbles you up, along with your family, your friends, your bank account, your pets, and your country.”

Lucado calls anxiety “a meteor shower of what-ifs.”

The word anxious defines itself. It comes from the Latin words angere (to choke) and anxius (worried, distressed). The earliest sense of anxious is from the 17th century, meaning “troubled” or “worried.” Lucado notes that fear screams, Get out! Anxiety ponders, What if? Fear results in the response of fight or flight, as it should. Fear is the pulse that pounds in your ears when you’re being followed by a hooded figure late at night just after you withdraw $300 from the ATM. Anxiety, on the other hand, creates a general sense of doom and gloom that you can’t quite figure out. Anxiety robs us of our sense of safety and security. It steals our energy. Our well-being.

Meyer (1995) says anxiety and worry are both attacks on the mind intended to distract us from serving the Lord. These are primary tools used by Satan to press our faith down so deep that it cannot rise to the occasion and aid us in our times of trouble. She says worry is definitely an attack from the devil upon the mind. She adds, “It is absolutely impossible to worry and live in peace at the same time.” She believes some people have such a problem with worry that they might be addicted to it. I’ve heard it said that a person will continue doing something as long as they get some type of benefit from it. So what might a person get from worrying?

To determine if you’re addicted to worrying, take the following quiz:

  • Do I worry about many things every day?
  • Is it difficult to stop watching anxiety-provoking news on TV or the Internet, though I try?
  • Do I experience separation anxiety when I can’t access my smartphone or computer?
  • Do I make problems larger, not smaller?
  • Do I worry about things that no one around me worries about?
  • When one anxiety is solved, do I immediately focus on another?

If you answered “yes” to all six questions, worry plays a very large, addictive role in your life. Four to five “yes” answers indicate a large role. Two to three “yes” answers indicate a moderate role. One “yes” indicates a low level. Zero “yes” answers suggest that you’re more warrior than worrier!

Meyer believes life is intended to be of such high quality that we enjoy it immensely. I’m not implying that bad things never happen to good people; that’s a topic for another day. Jesus was clear, however, in John 10:10 when he says, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (NIV). Eugene Peterson calls it “…more and better life than they ever dreamed of” (MSG). Worry is one of the many ways Satan steals the good life. Paul echoed this sentiment in Phillipians 4:6: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God” (NIV).

God Heals

We can love God with our whole heart, follow His commands, even put Him first, yet still be struggling with anxiety or depression. We can find ourselves face-to-face with the grim reaper, a gun or a bottle of pills in hand, no longer wanting to be alive. Wondering, How did I get here? For me, it started with marijuana and beer. Once addiction took hold, I lost sight of God, His love and grace, and all hope. My uncle, in recovery now for decades, told me several times, “You’ve lost all hope. You can’t even see the horizon anymore.”

Theologians and philosophers call man a tripartite being. That is, we’re made up of a body, soul, and spirit. It’s in our spirit that we find meaning and purpose in life. It’s in our soul—that is, in our mind—that we suffer mental illness. Anxiety and depression begin there, but spread throughout the body and quickly affect the spirit. In fact, mental illness causes us to doubt God’s grace and healing power. It cuts us off from the sunlight of the Spirit. This is critical because it’s through the Spirit that we learn discernment and intuition. It is through the Spirit that we’re able to love one another. There’s an interchange involved: our spiritual health impacts our mental and physical health, and our mental and physical health impacts our spiritual health.

We are impacted—either good or bad—by how we handle the stress that life brings. If chronic stress is left unchecked, over a period of time it will take a toll. A strong faith can help us cope with the stress that we experience and enable the impact of that stress to be less significant. Without a strong personal faith, we’re left to our own devices. Often we attempt to cope with stress through addiction, sexual promiscuity, shopping, gambling, and other methods of escape. Such behavior can further exacerbate the effect of stress on our physical health. A strong personal faith can be a resource that helps manage stress before it manages us.

Matthew 9:35 says, “Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness” (NIV) (Italics added). Jesus had compassion and healed those besieged by mental illness, many of whom had been despised, rejected, persecuted, and feared by their community. Interestingly, the history of psychiatric treatment has its roots in the Christian church. The Quakers in Philadelphia opened the first inpatient psychiatric facility in 1752. John Wesley and the founders of The United Methodist Church practiced a faith grounded in the redemptive ministry of Jesus Christ, with a focus on healing the whole person: physical, spiritual, emotional and mental. 

All aspects of health—physical, mental, and spiritual—were of equal concern to Jesus whose healing touch reached out to mend broken bodies, minds, and spirits. His intention was to restore well-being and renew communion with God and neighbor. Interventions are needed to heal mental illness. If you or someone you know or love are struggling with mental illness, especially as a believer, do not hesitate to pray with them and to suggest meeting with a minister. Also, there are many faith-based counseling services available today. It is God’s intention that you are fully restored. Christ is the Great Physician. Jesus came that we might have life, and that we might have it abundantly. That includes being of sound mind, free of anxiety and depression.

For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind. (2 Timothy 1:7)

References

Lucado, M. (2017). Anxious for Nothing. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishing.

Meyer, J. (1995). Battlefield of the Mind: Winning the Battle in Your Mind. New York, NY: Time Warner Books.

Jesus Calling

EXCERPT FROM JESUS CALLING
©2014 Sarah Young
July 19

Bring Me all your feelings, even the ones you wish you didn’t have. Fear and anxiety still plague you. Feelings per se are not sinful, but they can be temptations to sin. Blazing missiles of fear fly at you day and night; these attacks from the evil one come at you relentlessly. Use your shield of faith to extinguish those flaming arrows. Affirm your trust in Me, regardless of how you feel. If you persist, your feelings will eventually fall in line with your faith.

Do not hide from your fear or pretend it isn’t there. Anxiety that you hide in the recesses of your heart will give birth to the fear of fear: a monstrous mutation. Bring your anxieties out into the Light of My Presence, where we can deal with them together. Concentrate on trusting Me, and fearfulness will gradually lose it foothold within you.

EPHESIANS 6:16; 1 JOHN 1:5-7; ISAIAH 12:2

Why Do I Freeze Up and Go Silent? Move Beyond the Separating Power of Shame

The following is an excerpt from “If the Buddha Got Stuck: A Handbook for Change on a Spiritual Path,” by Charlotte Kasl, Ph.D.

Shame is a great paralyzer. To become unstuck we need to explore this troublesome feeling. When people are left, excluded, shunned, or abused, they often slide into persistent shame, which can result in depression, isolation, anxiety, and illness. Shame is a mired down, wretched feeling that arises in response to believing we are intrinsically bad, worthless, and defective. It can become a visceral, hardwired reaction that stems from having been humiliated, degraded, embarrassed, and diminished into an object for someone else’s use.

Shame is like an old experience ready to be resurrected when someone talks or responds to you in a way that echoes an earlier shaming situation. For example, if someone in the past frequently implied or referred to you as stupid, feelings of shame can be instantly triggered in current time when anyone so much as implies you’ve done something wrong. When this happens, you are basically reliving an experience from the past and falling into a child state. The reaction is often a wish to disappear, hide, punish yourself, retaliate, defend, or give up on yourself. When this happens, we tend to avert our eyes, blush, collapse in the chest, close the heart, isolate, and sometimes slink away as if in disgrace. The flow within the body becomes constricted.

Shame keeps us from learning. If you’re taking music lessons, for example, and you translate every suggestion the teacher makes into, “I’m no good, I have no talent, I’ll never make it,” you are creating a lot of inner anxiety, which blocks learning. Shame is like a non-stop negative evaluator that thwarts fascination and curiosity because you’re so worried about being judged as bad or wrong. And, unfortunately, trying to prove you are smart, talented, good, and right won’t counteract it; it will just lead to inner combat.

Shame also keeps us stuck because it stops us from taking action – you don’t apply for a new job, tell your partner you’re upset, take a class, try a new venture, or value your talents because you’re afraid of feeling shame if you’re turned down (which you call rejected), you make a mistake (you’re not perfect), or if someone doesn’t want to spend time with you (they’re abandoning you). To counter entrenched feelings of shame, some people blame, counterattack, change the subject, get defensive, make excuses, become arrogant or cruel, or exert power over others through leadership roles.  They appear in charge, but do great harm with little understanding of their impact on others. Addictions often are a cover for a feeling of deep shame.

SOME SUGGESTED EXERCISES

Easing Your Feelings of Shame

Name it. Observe it. When you feel shame, say to yourself some version of the following: “There’s the feeling of shame. What happened or what did I say to myself just before feeling it?”

Realize you are not your shame. Say to yourself, “This shame is not my essential self. It is an intruder, like toxic chemicals, pollution. It was put there when I was abused, left, hurt, shamed, seduced, teased, neglected, scolded, or not allowed to voice my thoughts or feelings.

Think of what you don’t do for yourself because of your shame, and then give yourself permission to do it anyway. This could include standing up for yourself, expressing feelings, initiating a conversation, asking for what you need, inviting someone to get together with you. Having a feeling of mastery over yourself in current time helps counteract the old experience.

Imagine having a new response to a shameful situation. Imagine being centered, confident, and at peace with yourself in a situation that has previously triggered shame. For example, you could say to someone, “It’s not all right to talk to me like that,” or , “Please ask me what you want without all the innuendos about how I did it wrong.” You could also try, “Something about this conversation doesn’t feel right, and I need to end it for now,” or, “Could you tell me what you meant by that? That feels like a shaming remark. Was that your intention?

REFERENCE

Kasl, C., Ph.D. (2005). If the Buddha got Stuck: A Handbook for Change on a Spiritual Path. New York, NY: Penguin Books.

Anxiety, Depression, and the American Adolsecent

The cover story for Time magazine, November 7, 2016, by Susanna Schrobsdorff, tells of American teens who are anxious, depressed and overwhelmed. Experts are struggling over how to help them. Schrobsdorff’s article is strikingly titled “The Kids Are Not All Right.” The article begins with the story of Faith-Ann Bishop, who was in eighth grade the first time she cut herself. She took a piece of metal from a pen and sliced into the soft skin near her ribs. There was blood and a sense of deep relief. “It makes the world very quiet for a few seconds,” she said. “For a while, I didn’t want to stop, because it was my only coping mechanism. I hadn’t learned any other way.”

Faith-Ann indicated that pain from the superficial wound was a momentary escape from the anxiety she was fighting constantly, about grades, about her future, about relationships, about everything. For Faith-Ann, cutting was a secret, compulsive manifestation of the depression and anxiety that she and millions of teenagers in the U.S. are struggling with. Some experts say self-harm among adolescents is on the rise. Self-Harm Increasing Among Youth.

As Schrobsdorff indicates in her article, adolescents today have a reputation for being more fragile, less resilient and more overwhelmed than their parents were when they were growing up. Sometimes they are called spoiled or cuddled or “helicoptered.” But a closer look paints a far more heartbreaking portrait of why young people are suffering. According to the Time article, anxiety and depression in high school kids have been on the rise since 2012 after several years of stability. This is a problem that cuts across all demographics – suburban, urban and rural; those who are college-bound and those who aren’t.

It is very alarming to learn from Schrobsdorff’s article that in 2015 about 3 million teens aged 12 to 17 had at least one major depressive episode in the past year. (U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services.) More than 2 million reported experiencing depression that impaired their daily function. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, about 30% of girls and 20% of boys – totaling 6.3 million teens – have had an anxiety disorder. Even more alarming, Schrobsdorff reports that only about 20% of young people with a diagnosable anxiety disorder get treatment.

These adolescents are, according to Schrobsdorff, “…the post-9/11 generation, raised in an era of economic and national insecurity. They’ve never known a time when terrorism and school shootings weren’t the norm. They grew up watching their parents weather a severe recession, and, perhaps most important, they hit puberty at a time when technology and social media were transforming society.” Schrobsdorff also reminds us that “…every fight or slight is documented online for hours or days after the incident.” Faith-Ann Bishop told Schrobsdorff, “We’re the first generation that cannot escape our problems at all. We’re all like little volcanoes. We’re getting this constant pressure, from our phones, from our relationships, from the way things are today.”

Other Concerns Not Discussed in the Time Article

From a distance, depression can seem like no big deal. After all, who doesn’t feel a little down in the dumps now and then? But depression in America is a big deal, and, according to the CDC, it is projected to become an even bigger and more serious issue in the next four years. CDC Mental Health Report. Mental illness is defined as “all diagnosable mental disorders” or “health conditions that are characterized by alterations in thinking, mood, or behavior (or some combination thereof) associated with distress and/or impaired functioning.” Approximately 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. (43.8 million, or 18.5%) experiences mental illness in a given year. Approximately 1 in 5 youth aged 13 to 18 (21.4%) experiences a severe mental disorder at some point during their life. For children aged 8 to 15, the estimate is 13%.3. Mental Health By the Numbers, National Alliance of Mental Health.

Although adolescent depression may not differ significantly from adult depression, the adolescent brain is different, and it seems possible that these differences may affect teenagers and their responses to depression. Teenage propensity for risk-taking and poor decision making can turn untreated depression into a dangerous game. A study released by researchers at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy suggests that depressed teenagers are more likely to self-medicate with marijuana and illicit drugs. Depressed teenagers are almost twice as likely as their non-depressed peers to become psychologically dependant on marijuana.

The White House study also suggested that use of drugs like marijuana can make depression worse. There was a higher percentage of youth with a major depressive episode in 2014 than in each year from 2004 and 2012 – similar to the 2013 estimate. Youth who experienced a major depressive episode in the past year were more likely than other youth to have used illicit drugs.

When adolescents are depressed, they have a tough time believing that their outlook can improve. But professional treatment can have a dramatic impact on their lives. It can put them back on track and bring them hope for the future.

If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, call 1-800-273-TALK.

Sleeping On Couches

There’s a lump under my back, and
I’m soaking wet with the sweat of anxiety;
Insomnia has had me in its clutches for a week now.

Images in my head keep changing: I’m free,
No, I’m captive. Different versions of me hide behind the couch,
Pregnant with memories of surviving somehow.

I had more things than this last week, many
More possessions, each with their own story of
Days when I was lucid, sane, solvent.

For some reason I have become willing to settle for
Less in my life, items diminishing, the sun setting, as
I slowly waste away, sleeping on couches.