“My parents don’t believe that I have depression,” a young woman disclosed to me in a conversation discussing her emotional distress and her feelings related to suicidal thoughts and soul-aching hopelessness. From a clinical perspective, this young woman certainly presented with depression symptoms yet her family did not believe that depression was a “real” problem according to their religious beliefs.
My heart instantly broke with this knowledge, because I have met far too many young men and women who are struggling secretly with emotional distress, due to their Christian upbringing. They have been taught that their pain is a taboo topic and a measurement of their spiritual immaturity. I see this pattern all too frequently in the church and frankly, it is a dangerous ideology.
Emotional distress such as anxiety effects over 40 million adults with only 36 [percent] receiving treatment according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Additionally, depression, the leading disability in ages 15-33, affects 16.1 million individuals each year (ADAA, 2018). Since 2016, suicide has been the second leading cause of death among individuals between the ages of 10 and 34, and the fourth leading cause of death among individuals between the ages of 35 and 54 (Cited by National Institute of Mental Health, 2018). Here is my point: emotional distress exists, regardless of whether we talk about it or not, and by not talking about it, we have left many of our brothers and sisters stuck in isolation and spiritual doubt.
So why do so many within the Christian community avoid talking about these difficulties? Why is the church not discussing these topics more often? Although I have seen some positive change recently related to mental health initiatives within Christian circles, there are still many unbiblical beliefs associated with Christianity and mental health. I want to look at just a few of these common beliefs associated with emotional distress and offer an integrative perspective that may help us to advance both the gospel and emotional wellness.
4 Myths Too Many Christians Believe About Mental Health
1. My feelings do not matter to God.
My first question in response to this statement is always, “Who told you that?” This is never a statement associated with Scripture and from my study of theology, I am certain of at least one thing that contradicts this belief — It is this: You matter to God — feelings and all. I believe this false assumption is due to two primary sources: A distorted view of God and our experiences of invalidation. Both of these variables contribute to a sense of spiritual doubt and fear of our feelings.
Here is the problem: We have started to place the invalidation of our experiences onto our image of God. In doing so, we assume that when God does not respond to our emotional distress in the way we want, our pain is not acknowledged by God.
This has a drastic effect on the way we handle our feelings and our faith. For many, it leaves them doubting God’s love, power, and goodness. This could certainly correlate to the general decline in religious affiliation in young adults today. We are walking away from an image of God that has been damaged by the invalidation we have received throughout our lives.
What if God is listening, and does care? What if our struggle is not a result of God’s lack of goodness or attention to our needs but rather the outcome of our broken world, which WILL be redeemed one day and set right again. I have come to learn that my struggle is evidence of my need for the God of the Bible, who graciously gives our pain purpose.
One of the foundational skills in counseling is validation of emotions. God created us to feel, to connect, to experience pure joy. In light of sin, we have also been exposed to the weight of pain, disconnection, loss, etc. Throughout Scripture, we see Jesus’ example of engagement with various emotions (Fear, shame, loss, discouragement, etc.) He does not once dismiss them but gently offers relief, hope, grace, and healing. He hears and sees the broken pieces of our world.
Psalm 34 reminds us that God is near to the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in spirit. He does not walk away from us in our pain but calls us to own our weakness in light of His strength (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).
Our feelings are real, maybe not always rational, but knowing that God loves us, messy and undone, helps us to be honest with our emotions and allows God into the raw and real feelings we may be fighting. Ultimately, our belief in God’s power cannot be dependent on an answer to our prayers. God is still God and His timetable is not ours.
I believe this is why Scripture reminds us repeatedly to pray and to worship. Even when emotions are deep and pain is present; we can rejoice in the truth that our God is going to make all things new, and prayers will be answered in the promise of Christ’s return, where we will exchange our tears for shouts of victory (Revelation 21:4-5).