Mental Illness and the Christian Faith

*Originally published in St. Peter’s June 2019 Newsletter.
Written By: Pastor Roth

Last month I shared something online that struck a cord with many. The basis for the post was a cartoon by a Christian cartoonist titled, “Depression, Anxiety, Meds, and Shame” (If you using an electronic device you can click the link to view the cartoon.) It speaks on misconceptions about mental illness and faith. It’s message touched my own heart and life, so I decided to share it with a little of my own story of depression and anxiety in the hope of encouraging others who may be suffering.

I did not expect the response I received. The public comments, messages, and in person responses by those inside and outside our congregation, laity and pastors, gave me reason to reflect and consider that sharing my story in our newsletter may be beneficial to many. Some of what I will share may shock and startle some of you, maybe even give you pause in relation to me as your pastor, but I pray it gives those who have never experienced mental illness a glimpse into the suffering, and those of you who have suffered or are suffering the knowledge that you aren’t alone, you are not to blame, you are not the cause nor issues with your faith, and God has not forsaken you.

The hope of reaching a single person who suffers or even giving insight to the family of someone who is suffering outweighs any hesitation I have in sharing my own story. There are many reasons I have not yet talked openly about my struggle with depression and anxiety. It is not that I am ashamed of my illness, for there is nothing to be ashamed of. Indeed, I have shared pieces with some of you as I felt appropriate or helpful. The main reason I have hesitated is that I did not want to give you all cause for stumbling in the faith. For many, the idea of a pastor who suffers from anxiety and depression is hard to swallow. There are many misconceptions about mental illness, especially regarding the faith, and I did not want to give any of you concern or opportunity to stumble.

However, I pray we have reached a level of trust in the near three years that I have been serving among you that I am now able to freely share my story and do my part to help confront misconceptions and help those who need to hear that they are not alone; even pastors are not immune to mental illness. Because the truth is, mental illness is much more prevalent than you might think.

The Enigma of Mental Illness
If you believe you do not know anyone who suffers from mental illness it’s likely because you simply do not know. The CDC reports an estimated 50% of all Americans are diagnosed with a mental illness at some point in life. One in five Americans (children included) will experience mental illness in a given year; one in twenty-five Americans live with serious mental illness; “serious” meaning it significantly interferes with one or more major life activity.

So consider this: we have an average of about a hundred people in worship on Sundays, split roughly even between services. That means when you sit in worship, there are likely about ten people worshiping with you who are suffering from a mental illness, two of whom cannot function normally in their daily life.

The CDC also reports 50% of all chronic illness begins by age 14 and 75% by 24. Mood disorders are the third most common cause of hospitalizations for those under the age of 44. Suicide, often associated with symptoms of mental illness, is the 10th leading cause of death and 2nd among people aged 15-34. Serious mental illness costs about $193.2 billion in lost earning per year. Those with mental illness are also at greater risk of physical health problems, such as diabetes and heart disease, and those with serious mental illness on average die 25 years earlier than others, largely due to treatable medical conditions.

With so many who suffer and the severity of effects, it seems there should be more awareness, knowledge, and understanding of mental illness. Even so, mental illness remains an enigma, an elusive mystery to most. Those who have never suffered from it do not understand; those who study and treat it have no clear objective way to do so; those who suffer have difficulty understanding and explaining it. No two people experience mental illness the same way (there are over 200 classified types!) and there is no single cause. A variety of factors may contribute to a mental illness including early adverse life experiences (like trauma and/or abuse), experiences of other chronic ongoing medical conditions, biological factors (genes or chemical imbalances in the brain), use of alcohol or recreational drugs, and the feelings of loneliness and isolation. All of this paints a very complex picture of mental illness that is quite hard to understand.

Misconceptions of Mental Illness
Unfortunately, as we do with so many other things we do not understand, the enigma of mental illness gives rise to many misconceptions. This is true not only in society, but especially within the church. One of the most common I’ve heard is that those who suffer choose to suffer, as if they could simply muster the will-power to “get over it” or “snap out of it” or “suck it up” and “be happy” in order to get on with life. The ‘church’ version of this is that people who have a mental illness simply need to “have more faith,” as if faith was our own work and not a gift from God for the salvation of mankind. Such claims not only hurt the psyche but also the soul.

Mental illness is not so easy to overcome. There are a lot of factors that contribute to a mental illness, as discussed in the last section. Depression for example isn’t your everyday blues. It’s not even normal grief. Depression goes down to the very core of a person and takes strangle hold on not only what they think and how they feel but even on who they are. Every day becomes a battle just to make it through. For some, the will power required to even get out of bed in the morning is more will power than most people will exert in a normal day.

The extra heartbreak is when this comes from the church, the very people who should understand that this world is corrupted on account of sin. Most would consider it horrific to tell someone suffering insulin shock, “If you had enough faith then you wouldn’t suffer from diabetes! Now just will your blood sugar levels back up and get on with life.” Yet many of those same people wouldn’t think twice about tell someone suffering a depressive episode, “If you had enough faith then you wouldn’t suffer from depression!” Maybe not in those exact words, but with the same meaning. Of course, they wouldn’t think of adding, “Now just will your serotonin levels back up and get on with life,” because, well, they don’t understand that most often there are physical realities behind the emotional suffering.

Another misconception is that mental illness is a personal weakness or a familial failure. Often people just want to point fingers and lay blame, but that helps nothing. And then there are the stigmas: they’re manipulative, they use people, they only care about themselves, they push people away, they’re self-destructive, they refuse to do what needs to get done, they’re lazy, and so on. The reality is that people who suffer from a mental illness are often incapable of thinking at such levels. Their illness impairs their higher functioning abilities and they simply react. When it takes all you can muster to get out of bed in the morning and face the world, there is hardly any energy left to plan out the rest of the day, much less plot out some master manipulation of others.

People who suffer from mental illness already have feelings of guilt and shame, being unloved, alone, and misunderstood, and much more. Misconceptions and stigmas only serve to drive them deeper into isolation. If they have not already been diagnosed, then fear from the misconceptions and stigmas often keep them from seeking a diagnosis and they remain untreated. There is not much care and compassion for those who suffer and so it’s no wonder that so many people are afraid to talk openly about their own struggles with mental health. That is why I want to share my own story with you all. I pray to give some insight to those who do not understand, but ultimately to let any of you who might be suffering from a mental illness know that you are not alone!

My Story: Early Childhood—The Storm Brews
*Please note: this is my reflection. Some of it I have come to understand through the help of counseling, but some remains through the lens of depression and does not always reflect the reality outside of me.

For most of my memorable childhood I suffered. Life was hardly enjoyable, but I didn’t know different. I am the youngest of five and so I thought it all was just part of the chaos of life, a chaos that seemed to absorb and swallow me whole. That chaos formed me in many ways. For example, my parents were so busy with all of my older siblings activities that they never seemed to have any spare time or energy to focus on me. So I told myself at a very young age that I needed something to stand out from my siblings in order to get my parents’ attention and finally receive the love, care, and attention from them I desperately desired.

As I watched, I noticed how much stress my older siblings seemed to cause my parents with not only their busy schedules but also with poor performance, causing trouble, or giving them grief. My little brain then concocted the idea that I would win my parents adoration by being “perfect”, the child who needed nothing from them, did well on everything, and never stepped out of line. You can probably see the storm brewing. A child should never have such thoughts in regard to their parents. This is the Law in the place where the Gospel should be.

How reflective of reality these feelings were is not relevant to the discussion of my story, as what is important is that was my internal reality and this was the most formative experience for me. Believing I had to be perfect to win my parents attention, approval, affection and care I became emotionally unbalanced. I developed an overly active sense of guilt, shame, self criticism, and insufficiency over even the slightest mess up or the smallest mistake. I was not winning the love from my parents I desired and believed it was all my fault for not being good enough. I seemed to just be disappearing father into the chaos of life.

One memory that exemplifies and compounded this internal experience is when I attended a meeting with my mom. I was bored and didn’t want to disrupt, so I asked to go to the playground. After what seemed like forever the loneliness became unbearable. I went in to find my mom, but she wasn’t there. No one was. I went to the parking lot and it was empty. Fear seized me and not knowing what else to do (it was too far to walk), I went back to the playground to try and figure out where I could sleep that night as it was already dark. I have no idea how much time passed, but eventually I saw headlights pull into the parking lot. My friend from down the street came to my house to give me a birthday gift and that is when my family realized I wasn’t there and what had happened.

Events like this weren’t often, but they were enough to reinforce my internal experience: I was not good enough to be noticed, loved, and cared for. I did not have the emotional intelligence or stability to cope with or communicate this, nor was I given the tools or space to learn. No one knew what was going on, that I was suffering, feeling unloved and unwanted. My pain manifested in emotional breakdowns. My family just thought I was oversensitive. They became impatient with me. My breakdowns were met with demands to “stop being a baby” or the like. This led to continued feelings of rejection and being unloved and unwanted by my family driving me deeper into self-criticism, guilt, shame, and feeling insufficient. I began thinking, “If you weren’t such a screw up and a baby then they’d love you. If only I were perfect…” It was a vicious cycle, and I thought I was to blame.

As all kids do, I transferred this way of relating to parents and family to the way I related to the world. I believed if I was perfect I would finally receive the attention, approval, and affection from teachers and peers that I was not receiving at home. My anxiety began to mount every time I tried something new or was placed in new social situation. I was so afraid of failing or making a fool of myself because then no one would love me. Every failed or unsatisfactory interaction I had became my responsibility, my fault. It became so overwhelming that soon I stopped trying new things all together and avoided social interaction. I became an extremely reserved child.

My Story: Middle School—The Storm Unleashed
You may have heard me say, “You couldn’t pay me enough to go back to middle school,” or the like. Sometimes, even now, I don’t know how I survived those years. It was beyond the regular middle school ugliness. My middle school experience drove me deep into the suffering that had already begun in my early childhood. Since I was reserved I had few friends for support and the middle school kids are just ruthless. I was the token last-picked that never got passed the ball. There were some kids that even made me their favorite target. It would seem like they would go out of their way to ridicule me.

The teachers didn’t help either. Most didn’t notice or didn’t care about the bullying. Some even bullied me themselves. There was one PE teacher that was set against me for some reason, even though he was never my teacher. Once when had free play in the gym I had boys in my class throwing basketballs at me. The teacher watched and did nothing. Another time in health class another boy held down my arm and drew an inappropriate picture on it. The teacher would not let me go to the bathroom to wash it off as my “punishment” for “letting” the kid draw it on me. My band teacher was no better. In eighth grade I left band for theatre and my teacher refused to speak to me the whole year, ignoring me when we passed in the hall.

I even had an incident with a vice-principal from a different grade. She called me a liar and threatened to punish me because I would not confess to an incident she accused me of. She claimed I bullied another kid on the bus and said she had a video of the whole event. She said she was going to punish me whether I confessed or not. I insisted I only stuck up for the kid. She called him in and he corroborated my story. (His parents were the ones who reported it.) She finally let me go, but not without threats of punishment if she ever caught me doing the slightest thing. I had never even had a detention before. Remember, I devoted myself to never causing my parents trouble.

These are just some of the experiences in Middle School that reinforced my internal experience and transformed it from “I must be perfect to stand out and be loved” to “I am unlovable, and no matter what I do the whole world is against me.” My anxiety and insecurity skyrocketed. I began to despair and I had nowhere to turn. No one understood what all I was going through and experiencing. When I tried to talk about it with my family I would break down and told that I was being overly sensitive and I just needed to toughen up and stop being a baby. So I learned to swallow all those dark feelings deep inside and pretend like everything was okay. In order to survive I learned to numb myself to the pain. Of course, those feelings never actually went away. They only festered deep down into full on depression, corrupting me to the point where I was paranoid that everyone hated me and was bent on hurting me.

My dog and Confirmation class were my only relief, the only things I looked forward to seeing and doing. They are probably what brought me through. I was convinced my dog was the only living creature who loved me, and I enjoyed learning about God and His promises: what He has graciously done for us and what He continues to do. Even though I was suffering my faith increased. It did not take away the pain, though, nor did it protect me from any further suffering. My faith had no effect on my depression, and in fact it was on account of my faith that I began to beg God to simply come and take me away.

My Story: High School—Surveying the Damage
By the time I entered high school I had suffered for many years and depression had taken over my life. I was in such despair that, though I was never suicidal, I would fantasize my own death. A recurring fantasy was letting go of the wheel on a particular windy road that I drove. In my distorted thinking there were two reasons I would never do it: 1. I was a coward, and 2. I felt guilty at the cost my parents would incur in paying to bury me and a new vehicle. Part of me knew deep down my parents would grieve, but I believed it would be on account of the tragedy of it all and not in actually losing me. No, in fact I was convinced they’d be happier without me weighing them down, that the friends I made in theatre would be happier without me holding them back, that the world would be a better place without me in it since I was simply a failure and a screw up.

My sophomore year my friends and I discovered an “online journal” site where we could write and post whatever we wanted. (Facebook wasn’t available until my junior year!) I finally found a place I could vent all my pain and share it with whoever. Somehow my sister discovered my journal and read some of what I posted. She had friends who had depression and she recognized symptoms in me. She shared her concern with my parents. A few days later I came home from school to my parents waiting for me. They confronted me with some of the things I wrote and asked me if I would go to a counselor. They had already scheduled an appointment in case I said yes.

For the first time in my life I realized life wasn’t supposed to be like this and there may be hope. I was so tired of living life that I was willing to do anything that might help. So, I went and talked and received a diagnosis. That was about 15 years ago. My counselor then worked with me for nearly a year. She helped me challenge my thought patterns to come to a more rational understanding of things. I can’t forget one situation she helped me think through because it shows just how badly depression had messed with even my ability to think. I remember telling her how my sister and my mom conspired against me because my sister came home from college one day and asked my mom to make my favorite meal when I was busy that evening and wouldn’t be home for dinner. My counselor helped me realize that my sister most likely desired that meal and didn’t even consider that it was my favorite. No conspiracy afoot.

I owe much to that counselor. She helped me find a foundation and a way forward. I could distinguish normal thoughts from depression induced thoughts. I could start seeing a world in which things sometimes happened and there was no master plan against me. Despite that, depression had still left it’s devastation. My anxiety remained, and is still something that I have to fight against, as well as a sleeping disorder I developed, a common symptom that comes with depression and other mental illnesses. I have had two sleep studies done at different times, both confirmed I had sleep problems yet were unable to offer any solutions.

By the time I graduated High School though I was a different person, but I needed a fresh start. I chose a college where only one other person from my school was going. I was ready to put the past behind me and see what the future held.

My Story: Life Beyond—Recovery Efforts
I didn’t realize at the time, however, that it wasn’t going to be that easy. Depression is an illness and doesn’t simply go away. I learned that the hard way. I had decided by the end of my freshman year that I was going to become a pastor, but instead of a reason to rejoice my faith became a point of turmoil. After a variety of difficult situations and circumstances my depression came back. Several of my close friends were into a different kind of theology and claimed to “experience God” in ways I had never heard before. It was intimate and I did not know why God did not give me the same experiences but instead let me slip back into depression. I was hurt and tried to run from God, but He never let me run far, neither would He let me get lost in false theology. I wanted to so bad that I once tried to eat a paint chip that fell from the ceiling hoping it was “manna from heaven.” Once I realized what it was I gave up trying to force God’s hand and tried to be satisfied with what He gave me.

My last semester of college was particularly rough. I had to drag myself out of bed each morning in order to get to class. I didn’t always make it. I had lost 50 pounds in a couple of months because of my anxiety and depression. Throughout that time I was looking forward to entering the seminary to become a pastor. When I finally got there I was deep in depression once again. Marie can testify that the first couple of years of our marriage were not easy nor happy ones. My faith was growing by leaps and bounds, but even preparing to be a pastor did not make me immune to depression.

Thanks be to God for “Pastor as Counselor.” The class required us to have six sessions of counseling. I asked a professor, Dr. Bruce Hartung, not knowing what to expect. We began to meet and much to my surprise we had much to discuss. I learned although I had learned to change my thought patterns there were still deep roots to my depression that were living and active: primarily that voice that told me that I had to be perfect in order to be loved. The irony is when I began those sessions with Dr. Hartung I wanted to be “the perfect patient” so that he would be pleased with me! He helped me address those roots of depression and that’s when I realized that this was going to be a lifelong battle. Once my requirement for class was fulfilled I continued to meet with him and work through even more. He helped drag be back out of the pit of depression by helping me understanding more about myself and my past. He also helped me understand that depression was just another thing that happened in this fallen world, and that it was noting to be ashamed of or to assign blame for. That last part was really important to my healing because I so bad wanted to protect my parents from blame (it was their love and approval that I desired in the first place after all) that I avoided saying anything that could be taken as placing blame at their feet. He freed me to be able to address all of that and helped me walk through the trauma I experienced as a child.

My time at the seminary also helped fix all the bad theology that I had accumulated in college. I began to understand that suffering is not a sign of weak faith, but instead the mark of a true Christian. We endure all things for the sake of Christ, depression is not excluded. Depression is just yet another expression of the corruption of creation by sin. Suffering from depression makes you no less a Christian than does diabetes or heart disease or even allergies. Sanctified reason gave me a foundation and a way forward, but the Gospel gave me life.

Even after all of that, knowing my struggle with depression, the seminary still allowed me to graduate and I still received a call and was ordained. Now, as a pastor I get to preach that life-giving Gospel every week and guess what: I still am not immune to my depression. Some days are better than others, but I have gone through several rough patches since I arrived in Humboldt. I fought off many of them, but at the beginning of this year I those familiar voices of guilt, shame, self-criticism and insufficiency became more powerful and I knew it was time to seek help. I reached out to a former LCMS pastor in Topeka who retired to do full time clinical work and have been meeting with him via telemedicine about twice a month. I informed both President Lange and our elders what was happening and that I began meeting with him. He has helped me once again to return from the abyss.

Once I no longer need to meet with him I know it will only be a matter of time before I need help again. I have managed my depression with counseling thus far and have not needed to take medication, but that may change in the future. There is nothing wrong with using medication either, and some people need it. These are gifts God has given to help us live in this fallen world. Faith does not make you immune to depression, and believing it does is a severe lack of understanding of the Christian faith. If you suffer from depression or any other mental illness and would like to reach out to me I’d be happy to hear from you. If you’d like to ask me any questions about my depression I’d love to answer. Blessings be to you.

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