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‘Not a faith issue’: Churches address mental health stigma in the pews during awareness month

Church, depression, pews
Unsplash/Samuel Martins

With May being Mental Health Awareness Month, pastors and church leaders are urging their congregations to shatter the stigma and advising that mental health isn't always a "spiritual issue."

Licensed clinical social worker Ryan Albrecht, a private psychotherapist practitioner, preached a guest sermon Sunday at The Experience Vineyard Church in Rockville Centre, New York. 

In the sermon titled "Emotional Awareness," the 40-year-old social worker who plays guitar and sings for the church's worship team told the Vineyard movement-affiliated congregation that Christians tend to stigmatize mental illness.

"[Mental illness] is a stigmatized and an uncomfortable issue for a lot of people," he said. "My experience has been that the big 'C' Church doesn't like going into this realm too much."

He said people often assume those struggling with mental illness look a certain way or that people who seem to be living great lives aren't experiencing mental health problems.  

"If [someone with mental illness] was in this church, you'd be like, 'Hey, he's good, he's not showing outward signs, right?' And that's the stigma we don't want to push," Albrecht preached.

Albrecht said the Church needs to actively approach mental illness in a way that does not judge based on what someone has attained in their life or what someone looks like because anyone can have a mental illness. 

Never would have expected

Albrecht shared about a past client he helped who was suffering from a severe suicidal health crisis. But most people would never have expected that person to be in need of mental health therapy because he was a "good looking dude, with a good job, a great house."

Albrecht spoke with the client during an emergency therapy session. As he listened, the psychotherapist realized that his client spent the entire day allocating his financial assets to allow his wife access to his money. 

The client had planned to commit suicide and wanted to ensure his wife had financial support when he was gone, Albrecht said. 

Before becoming a social worker, Albrecht said he struggled with drug addiction. He urged Christians to seek therapy because Jesus can work through the therapy process. 

He cited Romans 12:2-3, noting that Jesus wants to partner with anyone starting on a journey of "renewal and healing."  

"I love the combination of spiritual direction and therapy at the same time because the whole process [involves getting] to understand our heart, our emotions, how our body is responding. … We're going to separate trauma, emotional content, family relationships — all that," Albrecht said. 

"And we become kind of segmented, but we have to reintegrate, as well, ideally in the therapeutic process. That's why it takes time. That's why it's a process. You can't just do this stuff. You need to remain accountable. That's why having a relationship you take part in every week with somebody is super important. So start where you are." 

'God can miraculously heal you of anything'

Lead Pastor Lee Grzywinski at Montclair Community Church in New Jersey told his congregation in a sermon on May 15 that he struggles with what his counselor classifies as "severe anxiety," which he seeks continual therapy for. He told his church that medically diagnosed "anxiety is not sinful."  

He contends that churches and Christians stigmatize by labeling mental illness "sinful." 

"If you are concerned about anxiety in your life, I can't stress this enough: please seek professional help. ... This is not a faith issue."

"Yes, God can miraculously heal you of anything. I really believe that. But, if I break my leg, I'm going to pray and go to the hospital," Grzywinski preached in a sermon titled "The Spiritual Side of Anxiety (Mental Health from a Biblical Perspective)."

'Not always a spiritual issue'

Pastor Dave Hazel of New Life Church of The Nazarene in El Cajon, California, also encouraged churchgoers not to neglect themselves if they are suffering emotionally.  

In a sermon, he advised Christians with medically diagnosed mental health illnesses to seek Jesus, declaring, "Jesus is the answer to our mental health dilemma." But he also urged the need for some to incorporate therapy and medication into their lives to find healing.

"The fact of the matter is, I'm not trying to discount or minimize mental health issues that are ongoing and real, and things that we didn't cause," Hazel, who holds a master of divinity from Nazarene Theological Seminary, said.

"Please, don't misunderstand me. … Mental health issues are not really always spiritual issues." 

The pastor said there are many people who are suffering from various issues where their brains are not firing correctly, such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. Unlike other serious health problems, he said it can often be hard to people to grasp or see mental health disorders for what they are. He said when people have issues with their heart or other organs, doctors can do scans to show where the abnormalities may lie. 

Hazel warned that many churches stigmatize mental illness by holding the belief that anyone struggling with mental illnesses needs to get closer to Jesus. 

"[Oftentimes] we want to make [mental illnesses] spiritual issues [by saying]: 'It's all about Jesus. If you had more faith, if you kind of just pulled up the bootstraps and went to church more, you wouldn't deal with [it],'" Hazel said. 

"Stop that silliness because there are some real issues that we need to deal with when it comes to mental health. But, I do think there are some truths to some disciplines and habits that God's Word teaches us, [which] give us a healthy balance for our mental health."  

He believes more Christians would "have a healthier mental health perspective" if they "truly lived for and embraced and experienced the God who ultimately created them." 

Hazel noted a few spiritual disciplines found in Philippians 4:4-8, when Paul addresses the church at Philippi with instructions on how to live. 

Verse 4 says, "Rejoice in the Lord always." According to Hazel, Christians are to praise God with joy regardless of their circumstances. He believes doing this can potentially create better mental health outcomes. 

"I like to say to some people … 'if you are happy, you need to remind your face that that's the case.'… Because that means that you need to smile every once in a while. Have some joy and rejoice. And [Paul] says: don't just rejoice about just anything. … 'Rejoice in the Lord,'" Hazel continued. 

Hazel said the command to "pray" can be seen in Philippians 4:6-7, which says: "Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer … present your requests to God."

"I don't think Paul is instructing us to push emotions away. … I think Jesus modeled plenty of emotions as we look in the Gospels. He laughed. He cried. Jesus wept when he looked over Jerusalem. He wept when His friend Lazarus was dead. He got impatient with the disciples and the Pharisees. He turned over tables for goodness sake," Hazel preached. 

"So, it's not an issue that somehow our emotions are bad or wrong. In fact, they're God-given. [But] showing and expressing our emotions tends to lead to this aspect of worry and fear. And so as a result of that, I think Paul is instructing us … to [teach] us that … there's a pattern of discipline that you can do that will help you in your worry. And that is the discipline of prayer." 

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