What Is Mental Health?
Though there is no single, universal definition of mental health, most experts talk about mental health as a state of psychological and emotional well-being, where people are able to cope with the normal stresses of life, and work productively to make a contribution to their community.
The Mental Health Crisis in the U.S.
Sadly, “a state of psychological and emotional well-being” isn’t something everyone can claim. For a variety of reasons, many people struggle with mental illness—which the Mayo Clinic defines as “disorders that affect your mood, thinking and behavior.”
Mental illness is exceedingly common. 21% (1 in 5) U.S. adults experienced mental illness in 2020, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that almost half of American adults will develop at least one mental disorder during their lifetime.
Many factors are contributing to increased rates of mental illness, such as:
- Lack of community support (an epidemic of isolation)
- Societal trauma (gun violence, racism, COVID-19, the climate crisis)
- Social media-driven comparison and performance
- Stigma about mental illness (especially in the church)
It’s important to note that, while the above factors do seem to be contributing to increased rates of mental illness, these factors are not necessarily causes for mental illness. There are many kinds of mental illness, which happen to people for a variety of reasons.
Destigmatizing Mental Illness in the Church
Sadly, the church has a history of stigmatizing mental illness. Mental illness is stigmatized in the church because we associate it with moral failure, instead of seeing it as a medical issue, just like other kinds of illness. It’s easy to talk about my back pain or high blood pressure, but admitting I have anxiety or depression is often accompanied with deep feelings of shame.
A youth leader in a church said, “I watched young people break their silence about their mental health struggles only to have the adults try to silence them, question the reality of their struggles, or label them in a way that allowed them to be ignored.”
Because of the prevalence of mental illness, and the shame that so often accompanies it, destigmatizing mental illness in the church is an urgent, vital task for church leaders today.
One way to help remove the stigma of mental illness in the church is to confront some of the common Christian myths about mental illness.
Myth #1: Christians Can’t Be Mentally Ill
The first myth about mental health and the church is that Christians can’t be mentally ill, because salvation means the eradication of mental illness. I haven’t met many people who still believe this to be true, but it’s worth debunking.
Becoming a Christian isn’t a magic charm that wards off mental illness. Just like Christians can get heart disease and diabetes, Christians can be mentally ill as well. We don’t become exempt from normal human life when we begin to follow Jesus.
One way for pastors to help dispel this myth is by mentioning mental health issues from the pulpit regularly. For people who struggle with mental health, there can be a rush of relief that comes when a pastor or leader talks about mental illness as a normal part of life, because it removes the fear of being the only one with a particular diagnosis.
Myth #2: The Cure for Mental Illness Is Prayer
According to the same recent research mentioned above, 35 percent of American Christians believe that mental illness can and should be cured by Bible study and prayer alone.
This has been one of the most deeply harmful myths for those in the church who struggle with mental illness. When prayer doesn’t “work” as we expect it should, shame settles in to tell us we are beyond the reach of God’s grace.
But while prayer has an important place in the life of every Christian, any type of illness, whether physical or mental, deserves medical attention and clinical treatment. Seeking treatment for depression should be no different than seeking treatment for high blood pressure.
Myth #3: Depressed or Anxious Christians Are Sinful
Some Christian leaders carelessly talk about anxiety and depression as if they are issues of sin in the life of a believer.
“Anxiety is temporary atheism,” one prominent Christian leader said a few years ago. “Sometimes you just gotta praise the Lord!” pastors will often say when someone talks about depression.
But anxiety and depression aren’t evidence of sin, or lack of faith, any more than lower back pain or cancer. It’s vital for us to learn to see mental illness in the same ways we see other forms of illness: as suffering to be alleviated and treated with compassion.
Myth #4: Spiritually Healthy Christians Are Mentally Healthy
Some Christians believe that mental health and spiritual maturity will track alongside each other. That is, as someone becomes more spiritually mature, they will automatically become more mentally healthy.
But just like spiritual maturity isn’t directly correlated with physical health, neither is it directly correlated with mental health. In fact, according to recent research, 23 percent of pastors acknowledged they had personally struggled with a mental illness.
Myth #5: Mentally Ill Christians Just Need Biblical Counseling
A final myth to debunk about mental health and the church is that mentally ill Christians just need “biblical” counseling from a pastor or spiritual leader to overcome their mental health challenges.
But, just like pastors are not equipped to prescribe medication or perform heart surgery, pastors do not have the training and experience of professional therapists, who focus specifically on helping people struggling with mental illness.
Christian leaders should get into the habit of referring people to professional therapists (and seeing a professional therapist themselves, too!).
Christian leaders can also help by compassionately listening to the stories behind mental illness diagnoses, instead of allowing a diagnosis to become the end of the conversation. We can enter into relationship with those who struggle with mental illness in redemptive ways, not as a project but as a friend.
What Does the Bible Say About Mental Health?
Mental Illness in the Bible
“Mental health” is of course never mentioned in the Bible, but the experience of what we now refer to as mental health or mental illness is prominent in the Scriptures.
- After Elijah’s confrontation with Jezebel and the prophets of Baal, his mental health suffered: he ran away to be alone, and struggled with suicidal thoughts (1 Kings 19:4).
- The prophet Jonah also seemed to struggle with severe depression after God spared the city of Nineveh (Jonah 4:3).
- The Psalms are filled with the anxious, desperate cries of people suffering from traumatized bodies, broken hearts and crushed spirits (Psalm 6:6-7, 42:3, e.g.).
- Jesus’ anguish in prayer right before his crucifixion looks a lot like a panic attack (Luke 22:39-44).
Facing our emotional and mental health struggles isn’t a modern “fad.” It has always been part of what it means to be human, and is an integral part of the story of Scripture.
Mental Health in the Bible
Just like we can see pictures of what we now call mental illness in the Bible, we can also see in Scripture principles and practices shown to improve mental health, such as:
- Silence and solitude (Jesus often goes away by himself to pray)
- Lament (the Psalms are full of grief and lament, Jesus wept at his friend’s tomb)
- Mindfulness and meditation (“Set your mind on things above,” Col 3:2)
- Feasting (Jesus eating with “tax collectors and sinners”, the love feasts of the early church)
- Being with others in solidarity and community (Acts 2:42-47)
Pastors and Mental Health
Nearly 1 in 4 pastors report struggling with mental illness, and this has only gotten more pronounced in the pandemic.
Pastors have a unique vocation that exposes them to multiple factors that can affect their mental health, such as:
- Perfectionism: Many pastors feel pressure to be perfect, and perform a specific identity for the church.
- Pastoral care: Being on the frontlines of death, loss, and grief can deeply impact a pastor’s mental health.
- Deconstruction: Pastors need to care for others in deconstruction, and often do not feel they can talk to their parishioners about their own deconstruction.
- Lack of support: Many pastors feel desperately alone in their struggles.
- Lack of resources: Many churches are on shoestring budgets already, and pastors don’t feel they can seek professional therapy because it is too expensive.
Mental Health Church Resources
Books About Mental Health in the Church
If you’re looking to learn more about mental health and the church, here are some books we recommend:
- Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No To Take Control of Your Life by Dr. Henry Cloud & Dr. John Townsend
- From Burned Out to Beloved: Soul Care for Wounded Healers by Bethany Dearborn Hiser
- Grace for the Afflicted: A Clinical and Biblical Perspective on Mental Illness by Matthew S. Stanford
- The Soul of Shame: Retelling the Stories We Believe About Ourselves by Curt Thompson
- This Too Shall Last: Finding Grace When Suffering Lingers by K.J. Ramsey
- Wholeheartedness: Busyness, Exhaustion, and Healing the Divided Self by Chuck Degroat
Podcast Episodes About Christianity & Mental Health
We talk about mental health quite a bit on the Gravity Leadership Podcast. Here are a few recent episodes that touch on elements of mental health:
- What Emotions Are For in the Life of the Leader with Marc Alan Schelske
- Finding Grace When Suffering Lingers with K.J. Ramsey
- Hillary McBride: Learning to Listen to the Wisdom of Your Body
- Curt Thompson: How Naming Desire Leads to Transformation
- Becky Castle Miller on the Role of Emotions in Christian Discipleship
- Bethany Dearborn Hiser: Soul Care For Wounded Healers
- Krispin Mayfield: Understanding Spiritual Attachment Styles
Resources for Pastors Struggling with Burnout
Here are some recommended articles and resources for pastors struggling with burnout and other mental health challenges:
- An Open Letter to Exhausted Pastors
- How to Think and Talk About Suicide and Depression in Church
- How (Not) to Lose Your Soul as a Church Planter: 3 Shifts
- What to Do With Negative Emotions In Discipleship
- Join the Gravity Commons (our online community of practice to stay connected with others and learn together how to faithfully navigate life and mission amid our current cultural earthquakes)
Coaching for Pastors
Coaching can be an excellent option for pastors who want to grow in their ability to face and befriend mental health challenges in the church and beyond.Coaching is not a form of mental health treatment, but it can help pastors show up in healthier ways for their congregation. Gravity Leadership Academy is our 12-month coaching and training intensive for Christian leaders who want to bring lasting transformation to themselves and their communities.