Faith should be no barrier to mental health treatment

Pastor Jarrid Wilson would have been a good source for any column on depression, mental illness and suicide awareness.

Wilson, associate pastor at megachurch Harvest Christian Fellowship in Riverside, Calif., and co-founder of the mental health nonprofit Anthem of Hope, built a reputation around sharing his own struggles with depression, and trying to break down the stigma — particularly in Christian circles — around mental health treatment.

I would have loved to have written this week about Wilson’s continuing work to raise awareness of depression and suicide, and to break down the toxic stigma and barriers that keep people from seeking the mental health care they need.

But, tragically, that work will have to carry on without Jarrid Wilson. He died by suicide on Monday, one day before World Suicide Prevention Day. The day he died, Wilson posted a series of haunting Tweets highlighting the prevalence of suicide.

“Officiating a funeral for a Jesus-loving woman who took her own life today,” he wrote shortly before he died. “Your prayers are greatly appreciated for the family.”

In another post Monday, he highlighted Christians’ need to look beyond the confines of the church for mental health treatment:

“Loving Jesus doesn’t always cure suicidal thoughts. Loving Jesus doesn’t always cure depression. Loving Jesus doesn’t always cure PTSD. Loving Jesus doesn’t always cure anxiety. But that doesn’t mean Jesus doesn’t offer us companionship and comfort. He ALWAYS does that.”

These words highlight the crux of Wilson’s work and legacy — his brave fight against depression, and his tireless efforts to remove barriers between faith and mental health treatment.

As he pointed out, being a person of strong faith doesn’t mean you won’t suffer depression or mental illness. And, seeking professional mental health care doesn’t mean you have any less faith.

Very few Christians would make the claim that someone was of weak faith if they went to a doctor for cancer treatment. They would rally around that person, and pray for God to work through the doctor’s hands. But, unfortunately, when it comes to illnesses above the shoulders, some segments of American Christianity still take the view that “if you’re right with Jesus, all will be right with your head.”

The toxic unintended consequence is churchgoers become afraid of being seen as weak in their faith if they seek out treatment. And that can delay or even prevent lifesaving medical treatment.

In a 2013 blog post, Christian author Amy Simpson pointed out a LifeWay Research study that found 64% of Christian evangelicals believe churches should do more to prevent suicide. How should they — we — do that?

“If you believe churches should do more to help prevent suicide, here’s one tangible and quick way to help right now,” Simpson wrote. “Stop telling people they can cure their mental illness with only prayer.”

Simpson wasn’t degrading prayer, or saying people of faith shouldn’t pray when facing tough challenges. Nor am I. But, if you wouldn’t tell someone to just pray away cancer or heart failure, why would you take that approach with mental illness?

I am a person of faith and prayer. I also am a long-time sufferer of clinical depression, and am a patient under medical treatment for that condition. But, before I was a patient for my depression, I was a Christian who hesitated to seek treatment, because I didn’t want to risk being “outed” as a person of weak faith.

I may never have sought the treatment I needed if a loving and faithful pastor hadn’t pointed out to me faith and proper medical treatment are not mutually exclusive in any way. He led me to the wisdom of Sirach 38: “Honor physicians for their services, for the Lord created them; for their gift of healing comes from the Most High, and they are rewarded by the king … The Lord created medicines out of the earth, and the sensible will not despise them.”

Those words finally drew me to an uncomfortable, but possibly lifesaving conversation with my doctor.

Unfortunately, in one of the most pervasively Christian corners of America, far too many people never have that conversation. And, our outcomes for untreated mental illness are staggeringly tragic. For Oklahomans ages 15 to 34, suicide is the second leading cause of death, according to the Oklahoma Department of Human Services, and the state has the eighth-highest suicide rate in the nation.

If we are to overcome those statistics, and save more of our loved ones and neighbors, we all — whether we are people of faith or not — need to take up Jarrid Wilson’s work, and continue to break down barriers between mental health treatment and those in need. We need to finally accept there is no segment of society, no profession, no walk of life and no class of people untouched by depression, mental illness and suicide. Someone you know, someone you love, is fighting the darkness of mental illness right now.

Mental illness gives nary a crap which side of the tracks you hail from, or how much money you have. Likewise, we need to be indiscriminate and pervasive — in our compassion, support and love for those battling mental illness, especially when we find them within the sanctuary of our faith.

4 thoughts on “Faith should be no barrier to mental health treatment

  1. I was having a conversation about this with a co-worker yesterday. Unfortunately, it is not just mental illness that has a cure-stigma for some Christians. Cancer does too. Through my work at a cancer support center, I have met people who “claimed the healing” for their cancer, believing and trusting that God had or would rid their bodies of cancer. There is a difference between healing and cure. I believe that everyone can be healed, but cures usually need some kind of medical intervention (as do relapses or recurrences). Secrets and shame lead to more mental health issues; transparency, openness and trust can lead to better mental health (in my opinion).

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