Rates of depression and anxiety are soaring across the United States, especially among millennials. Between 2013 and 2016, Blue Cross Blue Shield saw a 33 percent increase in people seeking treatment for mental illnesses in the United States, with an incredible 46 percent increase among millennials seeking psychiatric health.
With mental health becoming such a growing concern among individuals, one would expect to see an increase in churches addressing the issue.
If we take time to pray for those with cancer diagnoses and injury recoveries, shouldn’t we take the time to do the same for people struggling with their mental well-being?
The statistics appear to show we aren’t doing that. According to one survey, only one-third of pastors in America have addressed issues relating to mental health from the pulpit more than once in the last year, and nearly 50 percent said that they “never or rarely” addressed the subject.
Compared to, say, how often pastors address bodily sickness in their preaching, why is mental health such a difficult thing for us to talk about?
I think it’s a combination of lack of understanding and lacking a clear idea of how to discuss mental health in a Christian way.
I’d like to provide a couple of suggestions.
My struggle with mental well-being
I’ve struggled with anxiety issues since I was in middle school.
Doctors confirmed my problem was medical. My brain makes less serotonin than the average person’s. So, I perceive most things at a higher “threat level” than other people. The part of the brain that decides what is a threat and what isn’t just doesn’t work as well for me.
My anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder made life difficult to manage at times, but it wasn’t crippling.
At least, that was the case until my mother passed away unexpectedly a few years ago.
It was, without a doubt, the most difficult thing I’ve ever gone through, and the difficulty is compounded by a constant awareness that I could go through it all again at any point.
My wife, my friends, my family, no one is safe. I could cause those people to go through that experience if I died. It’s difficult for me not fixate on this anxiety. I struggle with these thoughts on a daily basis.
“You could die at any moment” is a constant intrusive thought. It can make getting out of bed difficult some mornings.
This isn’t a call for pity. I’ve got a fantastic life.
But it is a call for my brothers and sisters in the church who are older than my generation to take our concerns about mental health seriously. I’m far from the only person who suffers in this way.
Bearing the marks of Christ
I was reading through Galatians last week when a certain verse struck me.
Paul, at the end of the letter, reminded the Galatian church of his authority to teach, given that a group of opponents were claiming Paul had taught the Galatians a false gospel.
“From now on, let no one make trouble for me,” Paul wrote, “for I carry the marks of Jesus branded on my body.”
The “marks of Jesus” Paul referred to were injuries he sustained while traveling to preach the gospel. Being whipped, beaten and stoned scars the body. Paul looked at his scars and thought of the scars on Jesus’ body.
Suddenly, that which would otherwise be a reminder of pain and suffering became a means of empowerment and assurance of coming redemption.
As Jesus suffered, Paul suffered. As Jesus was raised, so shall Paul be raised.
The marks in our minds
I don’t bear the marks of Jesus on my body. A small scar on my hand from touching a stove is a far cry from the lashes on Paul’s back.
But Jesus’ suffering wasn’t limited to his body.
The Gospels show us a Jesus in anguish and torment before his crucifixion. Jesus was deeply afraid.
Jesus was so afraid, Luke wrote, that “his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.”
Gethsemane isn’t the only place we find Jesus wracked by fear or sadness. John records that Jesus was “greatly distressed,” so much that he wept upon seeing the body of his friend Lazarus.
None of this is to say Jesus suffered from any sort of mental health issue but to point out that the suffering of Jesus had a real psychological dimension to it. Jesus suffered in body and in mind.
Christians and the mental health crisis
I point this out for two reasons.
First, I hope to show that stigmatizing struggles with anxiety and depression is patently unbiblical. Christ experienced deep anguish. Our ideal state is to be free from anguish and even anxiety and depression. We look forward to the day when we are free, but in the meantime, we recognize that Christ himself suffered in his mind.
Second, I hope to provide some comfort for people like myself who struggle with mental health.
Paul suffered in his body, but he found that the scars and bruises on his body reminded him of Christ, who experienced the same things. The suffering inflicted on Paul in opposition to his work became a means of spiritual empowerment because Paul could identify with Jesus, not despite, but because of his scars.
Those of us who suffer in our minds should think the same way. That which oppresses us might be turned, if only for a moment, into empowerment when we learn to identify with the Christ who wept over his lost friend and sweated blood in fear of his coming death.
We bear the marks of Christ in our mind, just as Paul bore the marks of Christ in his body.
Thanks be to Christ, who meets us in all kinds of sufferings.
Jake Raabe is a student at Baylor University’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary in Waco, Texas. He is also a co-founder of Patristica Press, a Waco-based publishing house.