In churches like ours across America today, many are lifting up mental health in their communities by participating in what’s known as Mental Health Sunday in our affiliation of churches. Highlighted on the third Sunday in May, Mental Health Sunday is a way for churches to begin or to continue to provide education and support to its people around mental health challenges.
Mental illness is a medical condition that disrupts a person’s thinking, feeling, mood, ability to relate to others and daily functioning. Just as diabetes is a disorder of the pancreas, mental illnesses are disorders of the brain. These illnesses are medical conditions that result in a diminished capacity for coping with the ordinary demands of life when left untreated. Anyone can have a mental illness. One in four adults experiences a mental health disorder in a given year. One in 17 lives with a serious mental illness such as schizophrenia, major depression, anxiety disorder or bipolar disorder. About one in 10 children live with a serious mental or emotional disorder. Most mental illnesses are treatable. Most people diagnosed with a serious mental illness can experience relief from their symptoms by actively participating in an individual treatment plan, which may include medication, psychosocial treatments, and other support services.
Mental illness can disrupt a person’s ability to work, care for himself/herself, and carry on relationships. It affects every aspect of life. However, because mental illness may not be immediately visible to others, the person can be negatively judged as being weak, lazy or uncooperative. This lack of understanding can lead to the stigma of people with mental illness. Friends and family members feel the impact of mental illness experienced by their loved one. Those feelings can be varied, and family members, friends and caregivers need to be supported in the midst of their experiences. Some might feel protective of their loved one. Others may feel embarrassed by the social stigma associated with mental health challenges. Still others may feel angry. All may feel helpless to provide support and encouragement. This range of feelings is common, and friends and family members may feel all of these at different points and should be encouraged to seek professional counseling as needed.
People who live and struggle with mental illness need community support and continuity of care to move towards recovery. Yet, churches have consistently done a BAD job at this. Some commonly held beliefs are that mental illnesses are a result of personal weakness, lack of faith, poor upbringing, or simply the result of sinfulness. These misperceptions distract from the fact that mental illnesses are brain disorders and require medical treatment and if anything, discourage people from getting the treatment they need from medical professionals. Yet these misconceptions continue to persist.
Recently I was listening to a message from a local pastor talking about “defeating depression.” The pastor listed four ways to get depressed. Wear yourself out, shut people out, focus on the negative, and forget about God. While these might make for good bullet points in a sermon, they are both inappropriate and irresponsible to proclaim to any group of people among which there are likely several who are actually suffering from depression and mental illness. Depression is not discouragement; depression is not about being defeated. To equate depression with feeling bummed out or sad diminishes the real and serious suffering of a person who is in need of more than just a pep talk.
People who are suffering from depression have difficulty sleeping or find themselves sleepy and sleep too much. People suffering from depression have trouble being social and going out with friends even though they know they should. People suffering from depression find themselves suffering from overwhelming and uncontrollable negative thoughts. And yes, people suffering from depression struggle with their faith and relationship with God. Being worn out, shutting people out, focusing on the negative, and forgetting about God are not causes of depression—they are symptoms of depression—and suggesting that these are causes reinforces the false and dangerous misconception that depression is a result of personal failings only pushes a person struggling with depression into a deeper hole and discourages them from getting the treatment they truly need. For a church or Christian leader to suggest that mental illness is a result of sin or some character flaw completely misses the message of Jesus.
In John chapter 14, Jesus says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” What then are the commandments of Jesus? I’m reminded of what Jesus said just a few verses prior in chapter 13. “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” To love one another is the ethical imperative, to obey Jesus is to love. One commentator says that if the command is to love God, and if God is love, then to love God means loving all and leaving no one out.  Telling people they are the cause of their own mental illness is not loving. Discouraging people from getting professional help is not loving. Treating people as if they are bad or sinful because they are depressed is not loving. Such thinking leaves people out. This isn’t what Jesus intended.
Jesus showed us the way to embrace those who are marginalized by society and advocate with and for them. Think about the people with whom Jesus spent time; prostitutes, lepers, tax collectors, people all on the outskirts of mainstream society, people considered sinful and bad. Yet Jesus loved them and included them, and in so doing, Jesus also showed us that every person has value and worth and deserves love, dignity and respect. Think about the people in the Bible who were said to be possessed by an evil spirit, people today we might say were suffering from a mental illness. Jesus looked upon them with care and concern, seeking to bring them healing and wholeness. Jesus did not blame them for their suffering, he did not shame them, he did not suggest what they could have done differently—Jesus simply healed them and showed them love. This is what we must also do.
It’s very likely that we all have someone in our life who is suffering from mental illness. Perhaps it’s someone grieving the death of their loved one, someone who has been diagnosed with a serious mental illness, or someone affected by the experience of their family member. Our commandment as followers of Jesus is through our love and inclusion of one another and especially these struggling to reduce stigma and promote the inclusion of people with mental illnesses and their families.
I also want to say to those among us who are personally struggling with mental illness or depression that you are not alone and that you are loved. God is with you, and we are with you. In this same passage in John, Jesus comforts his disciples by telling them that once he left, they would be given a Comforter, a Counselor, an Advocate—what we now call the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God. You are not left orphaned, you are not alone Jesus said. Though the presence of the Holy Spirit, God is with us, comforting us, fighting for us, loving us. When our depression or mental illness tells us we are all alone, God is there to remind us we are never alone. When our depression or mental illness tells us we are worthless or no good, God is there to remind us what we are precious in God’s sight. And when our depression or mental illness tells us we are sinful or bad, God is there to tell us God loves us and thinks highly of us. When the evil spirits of mental illness attack our body and mind, God is there to defend us, support us, and comfort us.
Finally, I also want to say, not only are you not alone if you are personally struggling with mental illness or depression because God is with us, but I also want to say that you are not alone because mental illness is something I have struggled with through the years. And if I, as a pastor, as someone who has been considered worthy of pastoral leadership by two different denominations, as someone who has eight years of ministry training in higher education can struggle with mental illness, mental illness is not a sign of sin or some other personal failing.
I am not a trained counselor or psychologist, but if you or anyone you know ever need someone to talk to about your own or someone else’s struggle with mental illness, I would be glad to sit and talk with you and help you or your loved one find the care they need. Because, I believe truly, with all my heart, that God loves us deeply, more than we can ever imagine, and the best way we can show our love for God is to love one another equally and unconditionally.
 “Introduction to Mental Health Congregational Toolkit,” UCC Mental Health Network, <http://mhn-ucc.blogspot.com/p/ucc-mental-health-network_2919.html>
 UCC Mental Health Network, <http://moredomainsforless.com/wideningthewelcome/MHNbrochure.pdf>
 Larry D. Bouchard, “John 14:15-21: Theological Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word, ed. David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Year A Vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010), 494.