Have you ever wondered why there is a strong stigma against mental health? And why even in a Christian community, it seems that people hide their mental health struggles and there is no open conversation about it? I know I have always wondered about that myself.
When I was diagnosed with depression back in 1996, I didn’t really talk about it. In fact, I hid it. It wasn’t planned at first. It was simply because I didn’t think too much of it. I didn’t have enough information about it, so my lack of knowledge and ignorance prevailed.
A couple of years later, my condition became so severe, it disrupted my life. I realized then that it was something serious. However, I still chose not to be open about it out of shame and fear of being bashed. For years, I stigmatized my own condition. Because society has also dictated over generations the extreme position that having a mental illness means you’re either crazy or sane, and there is nothing in-between. For fear of being labeled crazy, I pretended that everything was OK.
Today, in our culture at large much has changed. Thankfully, more open conversations are happening, although there is still much work to be done. But what about our Christian community?
I’d like to share a theory based on my own experience, which has taught me a lot and opened my eyes to a different perspective.
To put it simply, to be a Christian means to follow Jesus Christ, to have a relationship with him and experience his love. There is a stigma around that if someone is going through a struggle, having doubts, or experiencing immense sorrow, they may not be a true believer. Why else could that person be struggling? The Bible says, “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7 NIV). If that were true, shouldn’t you no longer have anxiety?
The sad reality is that this is what’s going on among some Christian communities. This perspective and environment can easily prevent someone from sharing their mental health struggles. I know it would have prevented me because I would have been afraid of being judged and criticized.
However, we are human, and God created us with thoughts and emotions. Our emotions were made for us to feel for ourselves and others so we can come together especially during difficult times. God gave us the ability to balance between managing our emotions and strengthening our faith. And living a Christian life is not just about rejoicing in all the happy moments, but also experiencing and thriving during the difficulties of our everyday life.
A few days ago, I read a daily devotion from Christine Caine’s book, Living Life Undaunted about “playing the part”. She said, “We certainly can be perceived as successful Christians by looking the right way, having the right ‘accessories’, and acting the right way. – and we as Christians tend to play the part.’”
This resonated deeply with me. And I am not just referring to our faith, but to our tendency to play the part and look good. It resonated with me because I was guilty of this.
Through all my struggles, I played the part of looking good. For a long time, I pretended everything was ok for fear of judgement. I portrayed the role of praying daily and going to church regularly, but I was a hypocrite because I wasn’t true to myself. I did not love myself as I loved others. I criticized myself before others could. I hid my true self and pretended that life was good amidst all my internal battles.
And my dear friends, Jesus was so clear it starts within us. “Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean” (Matthew 23:26, NIV).
It seems so much easier in our communities to rejoice together, but to shed tears and feel turmoil openly with others is another story. Vulnerability is not easy. Because weeping with others often feels uncomfortable, it can deter us from sharing and keep us from receiving the comfort we truly need. Opening our hearts is scary. However, it only takes one brave soul to show honesty and vulnerability, one brave soul to show empathy and compassion… and somehow as God’s people, we can start to feel – to sympathize – empathize – and weep with others.
God is inviting us into a place of vulnerability and openness about our mental health struggles. He’s inviting us to create a safe atmosphere for vulnerability not only for ourselves, but to be a place others feel comfortable to come and bear their hearts.
I share my story because, for more than a decade, I put on a mask. I deceived myself and others. But I am learning. I know better now, and I encourage you to open your hearts. We need each other, and as a community of believers of Jesus Christ, we can come together. We can share our stories and our mental health struggles with no shame or judgment. We can rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep (Romans 12:15).
With everything said, it takes self-awareness and self-work for truth and vulnerability. If you feel called to open your heart more, here are some practical steps that I do which may help you.
- Write down your prayers. I used to have a prayer basket. I wrote down my prayers on pieces of paper and folded them up and placed them in a basket. Now, I write my prayers in my journal. God wants us to be completely honest with him, showing our true feelings and not what we think we ought to feel, write, or say. As Rick Warren pointed out in his book, The Purpose Driven Life, “God doesn’t expect you to be perfect, but he does insist on complete honesty….What may appear as audacity God views authenticity.”
- Create a sanctuary in your space and practice stillness. “Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalms 46:10 NIV). Be it a room or a corner in your home, designate a safe space where you can give yourself the permission to be yourself, and do the things that make you feel whole.
- Practice self-awareness. Be kind to yourself and look within. Be mindful of your thoughts, feelings, and actions. Ask yourself these questions… What are you scared of? What’s stopping you from opening up your heart? What are you worried about? What goes on in your mind? These questions will help you get to know yourself and be more aware of your own limiting beliefs.
- Ask for help. When you start to look within, you will know when you need to ask for help, and that takes humility and courage. However, we know that, “True humility and fear of the Lord, lead to riches, honor, and long life” (Proverbs 22:4).
- Surround yourself with people who lift you up. People who are strong enough to voice how they’re truly feeling. People who believe in your true self, without judgment. And people who encourage you to use your voice to speak from your heart.