Two Things I Learned about the Church in a Psych Ward
I recently spent a week in a mental hospital. There. I said it.
Family life had been a bit stressful, work was going well, and my side business was growing. Oh, and I was editing a new book about mental illness. But for the better part of a week, I realized I was not okay in my head.
I had suicidal thoughts, and I wasn’t safe to be left alone at my house. A psychiatric ward was the best place for me to recuperate and return to my normal frame of mind.
While I was there, I learned a lot about myself, and how fragile my soul really is. I was truly awestruck by the kindness of the nurses and techs in the ward. And I realized how much my perception of personal freedom was shaped by everyday choices we take for granted—like choosing my own food and schedule.
I also learned a lot about the American church.
Most of the people in my wing of the hospital were either literal widows and orphans, or members of a similarly ignored part of society: a grandma forgotten by her family, a young man whose parents had died tragically and left him ill-equipped to deal with the challenges of life, homeless military veterans whose wartime injuries rendered them unemployable, and struggling drug addicts desperate to get clean but struggling to make it happen.
Each of these people felt that nobody cared about them. From what I could tell, they weren’t wrong.
No visitors came for anyone but me that week. Most of the other patients didn’t receive any incoming phone calls except from social workers. Outgoing calls involved lots of crying and promises to do better—and very few “I love you”s. It broke my heart.
We in local churches need to reassess where we spend our resources at a global level, but we also need to do the same individually. We have the opportunity to demonstrate pure and undefiled religion.
Mental illness is still a dirty little secret in the church.
I came face to face with my own unhealthiness in the psych ward. There’s no way to avoid deep introspection when you’re lying in bed under suicide watch.
Every day I carefully consider how much to tell people about my week in the hospital. Because, if I’m honest, I have some shame. I’m a good Christian, so I shouldn’t have ended up where I did (says the lies I’ve been fed). And I know I’m not alone.
Nobody wants to talk about the facts, but mental illness is rampant in America. Approximately 25% of people in the country self-identify with, or have been diagnosed with, one or more mental illnesses.
This includes the “easy” mental illnesses like anxiety or depression, but it’s not limited to those. PTSD impacts people from every walk of life, not just military veterans. Narcissism is an epidemic in corporate America. Sometimes it’s even considered a strategy for success and advancement. As a country, we are not mentally healthy.
And yet, we continue to hear sermons like 7 Steps to a Successful Life, at the exclusion of helping families bring their challenges into the light.
Indeed, most pastors in America say they are not comfortable talking about mental illness or being a part of a support system. Those of us in the church who are struggling mentally feel unwelcome, because nobody knows what to do with us.
So we dry our tears, stuff our fears, and pretend everything is okay. Or, we leave the church altogether. I know churches can do better, and that’s why I’m sharing my story.
Do people with cancer or other life-threatening illnesses attend church and receive emotional support? Every week. It’s possible to treat mental illness as normal, because for so many it is. It’s possible to view depression through an accurate lens rather than as a sin, and to treat anxiety as something deeper than a lack of faith.
Churches can become a safe haven for the mentally ill.
My pastor visited me while I was in the psych ward, and what he said to me gave me hope—for my own future and the church as a whole.
“You have too much to live for. Yes, you’re depressed right now, but you are still beautifully and wonderfully made. God’s not done with you yet. Don’t you go leaving us. People in our church need what you’ve got.”
My pastor didn’t shy away me. He visited me and gave me a snippet of hope in a dark place. He knew what to do, and he did it.
I’ve felt the affirmation of hearing some of my own mental health conditions mentioned in sermons. I’ve seen groups of believers rally around a suicidal man to affirm his worth, staving off the darkness with love. I have watched as an anxious woman is enveloped in care instead of ridicule.
So, I choose hope. I believe the future will hold powerful moments where the mentally ill feel inclusion, acceptance, and hope.
There’s one more thing I believe: no person can achieve all that God has in mind for them when they exist outside a local church body. Mentally ill or otherwise, each of us only becomes the best version of ourselves, the most clear representation of Jesus, living the most sanctified lives, and expressing the fullness of what God has placed into our hearts—together.
It’s time to stop withholding this opportunity for maturity from those with mental illnesses. No more should the lie be told that only the mentally well can serve God and pursue Him wholeheartedly. With the exception of Jesus, God has only used broken humans to accomplish his purposes.
Are you okay?
Have you ever felt “not okay” in your head? Most have at one time. Instead of running from the reality or shaming yourself, will you bring your thoughts and feelings to God?
The church won’t get any better at caring for the mentally ill if we don’t talk about it. We need to engage in honest conversations around what mental illness looks like—and welcome people to bring their thoughts and feelings to us.
That’s when real change will start. The time is now.
Whispers in the Pews
A brand new book is hitting the Amazon bookshelves in just a few short weeks. Whispers in the Pews: Voices on Mental Illness in the Church is a collection of essays from almost two dozen people who share their stories. Some authors are nurses, some are pastors, and others are men and women doing their best under the challenges of mental illnesses. Some of these stories are victories for the church, where we see the community of faith come together in love and support; others, less so. You can preorder the book here.