May is Mental Health Awareness Month in the U.S. It’s meant to raise awareness about the need to take care of our mental as well as physical well-being and to reduce the stigma that still exists around seeking help for mental illness. Although it’s gotten better in recent years, many people still hesitate to seek treatment or support for mental health because they fear they’ll be judged or ostracized. Unfortunately, that fear can be even worse inside Christian churches.

Some churches are great at helping members who struggle with mental health, but many aren’t. I’ve been fairly open about having panic attacks since I experienced a car accident. Most of those in my church have been pretty sympathetic and shared similar feelings and experiences. However, others haven’t gotten so much understanding. Issues like depression or anxiety that don’t have an obvious cause seem to be especially hard for Christian communities to accept and care for appropriately. The way we talk about mental illness often blames the person struggling or fails to recognize that mental illness needs treatment just like a physical illness. Those of us who might be struggling with these issues get the impression that the church is not a safe place to talk about these things. As a church, we need to do better at supporting those struggling with mental health by making mental health as safe and normal to talk about as physical illness.

Mental Illness is Not a Cause for Shame

One thing that’s made it especially difficult to talk about mental health within the church has been the assumption that mental illness, or illness in general, is the result of sin. However, we know that’s not often the case. In the Bible, sickness was sometimes the result of sin, but not always (John 9:1-3). Illness, injury, and pain come about for many reasons and purposes. We don’t know what’s going on between a person and God, and we should never assume that an illness, whether physical or mental, is the result of that person’s sin.

Another harmful assumption is that mental illness is a choice that indicates a lack of faith. Take anxiety, for example. Doesn’t Philippians 4:6 say, “do not be anxious about anything” (NIV)? Unfortunately, someone with an anxiety disorder can’t just decide not to be anxious, and they aren’t helped by advice like “have more faith” or “pray some more.” In fact, that attitude can hinder healing. If we think the very fact that we are anxious is in disobedience to God, that guilt may trap us in a cycle of remaining anxious and being anxious about our anxiety! Can prayer and closeness with God help? Absolutely! But that’s no reason to assume that the only thing standing in the way of healing is more faith. We are responsible for doing the hard work of learning to work through and manage our mental health, the same way we take ownership of our physical health. But there’s no need to do it alone or to feel guilty about needing to work at it.

Mental Illness is Illness

In order for the church to effectively support mental health, we need to understand that mental illness is illness and can have many complex causes. It might be our body’s way of dealing with trauma, for instance, or a chemical imbalance in the brain. It’s not a question of “mind over matter,” it’s not imaginary, it’s not just a lack of willpower, and it’s not just a lack of trust. As such, it makes sense to seek diagnosis and treatment just like we would for a physical malady.

Suppose you take a nasty fall one day and your leg is broken. Hopefully, you wouldn’t try to ignore the pain and go on as usual. And you probably wouldn’t feel like a “bad Christian” for having broken your leg. You’d most likely go to a doctor and have the injury set and appropriately treated. You’d probably then have a long healing period where you would have to be careful with your leg, not put weight on it, and use tools like crutches to help make sure the bone heals properly. It should be the same for mental illness—it’s just a different part of your body that’s not functioning properly. Just like for physical issues, God has provided many resources for working through mental health struggles, including therapists, medicines, psychiatrists, etc.

Sadly, mental health often isn’t treated like physical injury in church communities. When you hobble into church on Sunday with a broken bone, you’d likely get a lot of loving support. People might hold doors for you and offer to help you with activities that are temporarily difficult for you to do with a healing leg. They might also listen to you tell the story of your injury and then share their own broken bone stories. Now suppose someone walks into church with a new diagnosis of depression. Unfortunately, people with depression often can’t count on the same warm welcome from the church as someone with a physical illness or injury. So, the person might hide it or not bring it up. If they do bring it up, they might hear advice like this:

  • “Have you prayed about it?”
  • “What do you have to be depressed about?”
  • “You should read your Bible more.”
  • “You’re thinking about yourself too much.”
  • “Cheer up and find joy in the Lord.”
  • “It’s because you don’t have enough faith.”

Imagine if people said these things to someone with a broken bone! We should be able to talk openly about mental illness, share experiences, and learn about each other’s needs, just like we do for physical injuries. And we should likewise understand that the healing process may take time and require a great deal of patience and support as well as professional help.

What If We Treated Mental Illness Like a Broken Bone?

Now, more people than ever need help with mental health services, and the church should be in a position to offer that, especially because we can also offer spiritual healing. Mental illness shouldn’t be a dark secret spoken in whispers. Our responsibility toward our brothers and sisters with mental health struggles is to recognize that we all struggle with mental health at one time or another, pray for healing, and offer support without judgment.

If you’re struggling with mental health right now, you’re not alone. Please consider talking to a doctor or mental health professional. They may be able to help you work toward a diagnosis or treatment plan. Remember, you’re not a “bad Christian,” and you should never feel ashamed about asking for help.


Author Hannah Rau is a Michigan-based writer and writing tutor. Hannah earned degrees in English and rhetoric and minored in Bible. She enjoys exploring literature, media, and culture through the lens of her Christian faith. And drinking coffee. Lots of coffee.