Mental Health & the Church
by Ajay Erasmus
I work as a counsellor at a Church for one of my internship sites. While there I see a lot of people who have been in Church a long time. During these intake sessions I began to notice a pattern - where individuals would all put a check mark beside the same word - SHAME ✓ - there has only been one client that has not put a check mark beside the word shame.
To begin this discussion it might be helpful to define how I define the phrase “mental health”.
Mental Health is “how we feel towards ourselves, others, or the world we live in”.
Shame, as defined by Brene Brown, is considered: “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.”
To paraphrase this, shame is believing that you ARE bad, whereas guilt is the feeling that one’s ACTIONS are bad.
I struggle with shame. It’s hard for me to believe that I am loved and worthy of love. I often spend time trying to be really good at things so that I can prove to myself and others that I should be loved. I have a hard time taking in compliments because others appreciating me seems incomprehensible to my internal experience. Probably twice a week I experience a deep sense of loneliness where I feel paralyzed and all of life feels worthless.
Take a moment to check in with what’s happening for you as you read this. Is there a hollowness in your chest? A weight on your shoulders? Do you resonate with me? Do you want to tell me that I am loved and that I am not alone and shouldn’t feel those bad things? That heaviness is hard. It’s interesting how we can have these empathetic responses for others but yet can be so hard on ourselves or when we don’t exactly know what is going on, we completely divest ourselves of the situation. I’ve seen both in church communities, but the question is -- How should the church respond to the conversation of our mental health? To the struggle within it?
Church can be really good at community. When people feel safe and free to show up they can find connection and it’s beautiful and meaningful. But community is a double-edged sword. The things that make it beautiful can also be what makes it difficult. For example, I know that “showing up” to community is hard. One of the reasons for this is the perceived accepted states of being that we’re allowed to show up as: happy, pretty, excited, thoughtful, holy. If those aren’t words you would associate with yourself, you might not feel like you can show up. Those things are wonderful but they are not expectations or qualifications of being accepted by Jesus.
I believe that God’s will for our lives is to find joy and in the midst of our lives God desires for us to experience joy. But sadness is not a sin. If someone is sad, that shouldn’t lead us to this conclusion that they have done something wrong. To often we can make the assumption that something is wrong with them. This concept propagates shame.
I have the privilege of getting supervision from a psychologist that is also the pastor of counselling care of a church in the area. We often discuss how pastors and theology can take a top-down perspective, whereas counselling has a bottom-up perspective. The bible or pastor (the top) says what it means to be human to you (down). The bottom-up approach has some like a counsellor ask you (the bottom) about your experience with the goal of validating one’s experience of themselves, others, and the world. Arguably, both perspectives are needed, but without the bottom-up approach, people hear how they should feel or how they should be, and when they cannot measure up, they are not only depressed or anxious, but they are those things with a sense of shame. A pure top-down approach has the unintended consequence of creating shame through a connection to moral failure.
This is how this plays out in real life: We know not to do drugs because drugs are bad. If you do drugs you are bad, because drugs are bad. Therefore, tell the druggie to not do drugs and they’ll be good. However, current addictions research tells us that we know that people are likely to go to drugs when they feel pain and disconnection when they don’t feel a sense or love or belonging. (As an aside, if you believe drugs are bad, getting medication will likely be hard, but that’s a whole other blog post). What they are feeling is real to them and in telling someone how they should feel, we can unintentionally ignore their pain by dismissing their experience and create shame and isolation.
Shame exists because we believe we are bad when experiencing something difficult. This leads to quick answers that dismiss experiences that increase shame and lead to isolation and desperation. What this creates is the following model:
pursuit → desperation → prayer → over spiritualizing → despair
We pursue who and how we “should be”. When we do not make it, we feel desperate, so we pray to take away our suffering because our suffering leads us to despair, and spiritually: that is not allowed. This tends to create over-spiritualization that looks like: blaming the devil, needing to pray harder, reading your bible more etc.. Spiritual practices like prayer, and reading the bible are important but when they become the source of our healing instead of looking to the God who loves us then they can create more shame or “not enough-ness”. Ultimately, we aren’t actually focussed on prayer or time in scripture in a healthy manner but rather they’re about escaping despair.
The paradox of Jesus is that he fully embraced and embodied everyone’s despair on the cross. He put it to death by embracing it. Maybe, that’s our goal. Instead of ignoring it, or over spiritualizing it we embrace those moments of suffering by simply sitting with and talking to someone about their experiences. By offering empathy and understanding we extend grace and undue shame by letting people be just as they are in whatever state and know that they are enough. That Jesus isn’t waiting for a perfect situation to walk into but he meets us in the midst of our struggle. Maybe we need to actually embrace the despair to kill it. And when we learn that we can be with our despair and it won’t actually kill us, we can sit with others in theirs.
This is to be as Jesus modelled for us. Shame is not the message of Jesus. Rejection is not the message of Jesus. Isolation is not the message of Jesus. Rather he calls us into a place of discovering hope, love and faith in community. To sit with others. To see their despair. To listen to their struggle. And to relate with vulnerability and honesty. To provide hope and love by simply being present. This is what it is to be the church. Perhaps more so than any community in our society today the church should be the place where all who are struggling with their mental health should feel the most safe. Not to isolate individuals from real points of support like counselling, or medication but to be a safe space for beginning the conversation.