Nils von Kalm
18 May 2023
For most of my adult life, I have struggled with anxiety and depression. For millions of Australians like me, mental health is not just an abstract “issue” people talk about. It is a daily struggle.
Being a Christian has sometimes exacerbated these struggles. Misunderstanding, moralising and over-spiritualising are common in the church. Thankfully though, the church is also a place where I have received the most beautiful love and compassion.
Whatever the response has been, the church has an opportunity to show more love to the millions of people in this country who struggle with mental health. Australia has some of the highest rates of mental illness in the world. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, as of July 2022:
- More than 40 per cent of Australians aged 16-85 have experienced a mental disorder at some time in their life.
- More than 20 per cent of us have had a 12-month mental disorder.
- Anxiety is the most common group of 12-month mental disorders, affecting more than three million Australians.
- Young people are particularly affected. Almost 40 per cent of Australians aged 16-24 years have a 12-month mental disorder.
Statistics are easy to quote, but I ache inside when I remember that these are people’s lives. Chances are that you either know someone in the above categories, or you yourself are experiencing a mental disorder.
The church has a mixed record when it comes to approaching mental health. I have heard and read many stories of love, compassion and healing for mentally ill people in the church. On the other hand, only just over a third (37 per cent) of Australian church attenders said the support they received from their church for their mental illness was adequate, according to the most recent National Church Life Survey.
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I have heard too many stories of moralising and over-spiritualising of mental health in the church. They include admonitions to “just pray more”, that their mental illness is a sin, or that they “have a demon”. Such responses are not only ineffective, they are abusive and are therefore the very antithesis of a Christian response.
We wouldn’t give advice like this to someone with a broken leg. So, why would we give it to someone with a mental illness?
The British researcher and author, Johann Hari, in his book, Lost Connections, says that the question we need to ask those who struggle is not, “what’s wrong with you?”, but, “what happened to you?”. Ask anyone struggling with mental illness and you will most often hear about severe trauma they have experienced at some point in their lives. As such, compassion is the only adequate response.
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So, how did Jesus deal with people struggling with what we might describe as mental illness? As is the case today, such people in Jesus’ day were among the most marginalised, oppressed, devalued and stigmatised in society. The gospels show that he approached them as people made in the image of God, with full dignity and therefore fully deserving of love.
What then can a compassionate and practical response from the church look like? In my experience, both as someone who has experienced mental illness and someone who works with those suffering, I suggest the following:
- Ask God to give you a sensitivity to people who struggle and to respond with love.
- Saturate yourself in the gospels until you see the overflowing compassion of Jesus for people who struggle.
- Learn the stories of people with mental illness. Listen to them and tell them you hear them.
- Don’t give advice unless it is asked for.
- If you tell people you are there for them, make sure you are. People struggling with their mental health have experienced enough rejection and empty promises.
It’s ok if you feel inadequate in knowing what to do. Often we don’t know what to say, or we think that if we do say something, it will just make it worse. So, we don’t get involved. Meanwhile, the person needing help suffers alone.
You may have heard the old story of the grandfather who was depressed. Many people went to him to help. They spoke to him, gave him all sorts of advice, tried to cheer him up, but nothing worked. One day, after a little child spent time with him, the grandfather felt a lot better. Everyone was amazed, and they asked the child what she did. The child said, “Nothing; I just sat there with him and didn’t say anything”.
Never underestimate the power of loving presence. If someone is struggling with mental illness and you have absolutely no idea how to help, it’s ok. Just go and be with them. You might just save their life.
If you or a loved one need support, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636.
If life is in danger, phone Triple Zero (000).
Nils von Kalm is a Melbourne writer who focuses on the links between Christian faith and culture. He can be found online at linktr.ee/nilsvonkalm.
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