A Christian Response to Mental Illness


It may seem strange for me to write a blog about mental health, mainly because I’ve been fortunate enough to not have struggled with mental illness in the past. Sure, I’ve had days when I feel down or have the blues, but we have come to understand mental illness as much more complicated than that. The Canadian Mental Health Association describe mental illnesses as…

“…health problems that affect the way we think about ourselves, relate to others, and interact with the world around us. They affect our thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. Mental illnesses can disrupt a person’s life or create challenges, but with the right supports, a person can get back on a path to recovery and wellness.”

So why do I feel the need to write about mental illness? Why not someone who speaks from their own experience? Simply put, because the stigma around mental illness is still present in our society and churches. The more we talk about this, the less stigmatized it will be, hopefully coming to a point where “snap out of it,” or “just pray more” are no longer legitimate pastoral responses.

I spent about two and a half years of my life working in the mental health field in Winnipeg and have seen the marginalization that occurs for people struggling with mental illness. I have seen what happens when people don’t have the supports they need from their families or community. There are still many barriers that make pretence our only safe option. 

Although I can’t speak from my own experience, I want our churches to know that we have a responsibility to our brothers and sisters who walk with mental illness. In the last couple of months,  I have encountered two people who have been impactful for me because of their openness to talk about their mental health and their place/work in the church.  

So, what is the Christian response? What should you do if someone you know is struggling and comes to talk to you about their mental health? What are the expectations you should have of the church if you deal with mental illness in your own life? I hope the insights from Janessa Giesbrecht and Joey Svendson can be a starting point. 

Janessa is a pastor at Fort Garry MB Church in Winnipeg. We invited her to speak at Sterling about her faith and walk with depression during our series on “Healing and Hope.” Not only did she share from her own experience, but her willingness to be vulnerable was a moving example for us. 

As she shared her story, she drew on Psalm 46 and Matthew 11:28-29 as guiding passages in which God invites us to come to Him with our burdens and struggles. Psalm 46 reminds us that life is not without hardship, but that in those experiences, God is our refuge and strength. She finished her sermon with four challenges to the church. If we want to be helpful brothers and sisters to those with mental illnesses, we need to:

  1. acknowledge that the burdens people carry are real and complex.
  2. create safe spaces for people to share about what is going on in their life.
  3. acknowledge stigmas and reduce them.
  4. always pray.

Joey is a pastor at Seacoast Church in the US and is part of the Bad Christian Network. He also hosts his own podcast called Pastor With No Answers. The Bad Christian Network seeks to be open and honest about the Evangelical church in North America. They aren’t afraid to talk about topics that no one else wants to talk about and are creating quite a following of people who are tired of conventional church. Although I enjoy their work, be for-warned if you want to listen to their stuff. They are called Bad Christian for a reason.

In his book, Fundamentalist, Joey shares his life story of growing up in a legalistic church and his struggles with God, faith and sexuality, all while figuring out that he struggles with mental illness. It's a fascinating and slightly unbelievable story. Knowing that many people don’t know how to deal with Him, He offers 14 tips (p.89-91) from his perspective of how we can respond with the love of Christ.

  1. It’s usually difficult to talk about depression when I’m depressed. I think the main reason for this is that the conversation typically brings added guilt knowing I negatively impact those I love. Ask, does it help to talk about it in the moment? Ask if I’d like to talk instead of forcing me to. If I’m not too low, I may be willing to.
  2. We’re on shaky ground when we invest our stability and contentment in another human being. No fallen person can be your saviour, whether they’re depressed or not.
  3. Your depressed loved one isn’t intentionally trying to hurt you - I hope. For me, I have to try and resist feeling bad about hurting those I love. If I wallow in hurting others too long, it makes me more depressed and, in turn, may not benefit you at all.
  4. Try not to resent your depressed loved on. We’re only human. Resentment happens. But ask yourself, would you be more sympathetic to someone if they got in a bad car accident and were forever paralyzed?
  5. Talk to trusted friends about depression. Find someone you can talk to openly about walking with someone with depression.
  6. Say something nice. I know it may be hard, but a kind word goes a long way. It takes a lot of pressure off and could help lighten someone’s day and aide in getting your loved one the heck out of the darkness.
  7. Don’t allow yourself to get into fix-it mode. When someone has the flu, they need to be willing to do things to get better, but you wouldn’t expect a quick fix. When you’re sick, sometimes it takes a while to recover. Your demands for solutions aren’t helpful in the now.
  8. If your loved one remains unwilling to seek help, ask someone for advice, maybe even a professional.
  9. Remind yourself that your loved one is hurting.
  10. Everyone has to take responsibility for their meanness and irritability. But these are also part of the sickness. The brain moderates our behaviour, and when it isn’t functioning in a healthy way, it follows that behaviour may be unhealthy as well.
  11. Ask “Do you want to talk about it?” Don’t ask incessantly, but do ask once a day.
  12. Before you leave the house, ask if they want to come. It may be hard for a depressed person to take initiative to be included, but it’s likely easier to say “yes.” If you ask and they say “no,” try not to get mad. It won’t do either of you a bit of good.
  13. Ask if they’ve thought about self-harm. To ask this question shows that you recognize the serious nature of the pain associated with depression.
  14. If you are the praying type, ask God to give you strength. Lean on the strength of God for your own sanity. God works even in counterintuitive ways. Sometimes when we are at our limit, we have no other option but to turn to God. And situations that cause trust in God are a great gift.

I think it’s pretty clear that we have a lot of learning to do in the church of how to respond faithfully to those with mental illnesses. We all find ourselves somewhere along the spectrum of mental health, making this a relevant conversation for everyone. I realize that the examples I used here are of people who deal mostly with depression, but there are many other forms of mental illness as well. Perhaps, for those of us who have little idea of what to do or how to respond, this is simply a good place to start. May we be open to listen, learn, listen some more, and walk this road together.