The month of May is such an important month. It is mental health awareness month which has led me to think about differing views/ways of addressing mental health in the church. It has also led me to reflect about my own mental health journey.
I think some churches/people do a great job at making mental health and struggling part of the discussion, helping everyone know that they are not alone in struggling. Every single person has mental health, whether there is a diagnosable "mental illness" or not, and I believe that to some extent everyone struggles to cope with the pressures of life. Unfortunately, there are also churches/people who contribute to the stigma, shame, and isolation that can accompany mental illness or even struggling in general.
Being open with struggle and open to hearing individual perspectives and experiences is something that I think that my current church does very well. We have "all-play" questions, in which the congregation is encouraged to answer the questions out loud and which there isn't necessarily a right answer. Although I never answer them (being an introvert and answering questions in big crowds don't mix well) I really appreciate being able to hear the voices of those that I am in community with.
Often, things that I am thinking but am too afraid to say out loud are said by others. I am left feeling less alone and more connected to those around me, knowing that we all go through trials and we are not isolated in the struggles we face as humans. It is a very powerful experience listening to people be vulnerable and authentic with each other. It's a space where we are welcome as we are and are encouraged to share our true self, however messy and imperfect that may be.
I had opposite experiences at a previous church that I attended and often left feeling alone, like I didn't belong and like I needed to hide my true, imperfect self. Questions asked here are often prefaced with Don't raise any hands, and although I am sure it is not their intention, what I personally heard was don't share your struggle; don't show the messy and broken pieces of yourself; don't let others see that you don't have it all together. It's a large church, so I understand not wanting people to feel uncomfortable raising their hands. But what if raising our hands could help people feel more connected and less isolated? Imagine the powerful impact that a large church could have on feelings of loneliness by seeing hands go up all around, silently whispering me too, I've been there, I am there, we are in it together, and you are not alone.
My own journey started around age 14 when I started to experience anxiety and depression, as well as disordered thoughts around food and my body. Over the past nine years, the road has been rocky, but the lessons learned and the growth that occurred are invaluable. Many people with mental health disorders suffer in silence and I was no different in keeping to myself in the beginning. People don't tend to talk very openly about these issues like they need to be. But what if talking and listening is the key to ending the stigma and the shame around it? What if silence equals suffering and openness equals freedom?
To those suffering: you are not alone, you don't have to hide, there is no shame in your struggle.
To those with a friend who is struggling: it's not something to be afraid of, don't worry about having the perfect thing to say, the most important part is that you are there and let them know that they aren't alone. Even saying something as simple as, "I don't know that right thing to say right now, but I'm here for you" can be a game changer.
Let's keep the conversation going. Finally, I will leave you with these sweet words from Matthew 11:28 – Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.