A graffiti of words on a brick wall, painted in the form of a crossword.

Words Matter

Shaley HoogendoornBlog, Church, Mental Illness

Blood rushed to my cheeks, and I felt the familiar heat of shame wash over me. As the words sank into the deepest part of my soul, my body seemed to shut down and go numb. I was sitting in the pew of my church listening to the sermon, like every other Sunday, when our then pastor flippantly made that comment and moved on.

“People these days pop a Xanax instead of reaching for their Bibles.”

In an instant I was transported in my mind to all the moments where I was dismissed or given unsolicited opinions or advice. My thoughts were rapidly cycling back and forth between anger and disappointment as I remembered each incident: the time at women’s Bible study when it was suggested I was depressed because I might have unacknowledged sin in my life, the times when I was told I needed to pray harder or memorize more Bible verses or have hands laid on me or listen to more praise music, and worst of all, the times when I was sent articles, videos, or invites to events about healing. 

I attended those events in hopes of hearing authentic stories of other men and women of faith who were struggling with mental health disorders, but that wasn’t the case. The stories shared always had happy endings, wrapped up in a nice bow. In the end, I would leave these events feeling even more shame and hopelessness than before. Despite being deeply involved in my church community, these moments left me feeling as though I didn’t fit in or even really belong in church. 

So, as I sat in the pew that Sunday, hearing my pastor say the same kind of thing I had heard countless times before, my heart was breaking for all those in that room who experience crippling anxiety. All I could do was pray for those who take medication to balance the chemicals in their brains and bodies, like me. I also prayed for my pastor and those like him who make comments like this and miss the harm of the stigma they unknowingly perpetuate. 

I wanted to walk out of the sermon. I wanted to walk right out of that church, but I was afraid if I did walk out, I would be misunderstood. I was afraid I would be feeding into the stereotypes of the mentally ill being weak or dramatic. So I sat there and listened as my pastor compared the use of prescribed medication with lazy faith that sought a quick fix rather than confronting fear and anxiety with the truth in the Bible. 

For the record, I believe Jesus uses both the power of the Holy Spirit and the creative wisdom of doctors to bring health and balance to our minds and bodies. Yet it took years for me to seek the help I needed because I carried the weight of shame on top of the struggle of living with bipolar 2 disorder. Much of the shame I carried was perpetuated by my faith communities. Often, I edited my experiences and downplayed my symptoms because of the fear of judgement and rejection from my church and my community. There were many kind and well-meaning people that made me feel weak, small, and unworthy with their “helpful” advice. Eventually, I became a pro at hiding my cycles of overwhelming grief and anxiety. 

The stigma around mental health disorders, especially in the Church, is all too often devastating. The Church does not always feel like a safe and welcoming space for those of us with the invisible illness of a mental health disorder. This reality continues to surprise me because it is the exact opposite of the way of Jesus. 

Jesus hung out with the hurting, the lost, and the marginalized. Jesus spent the majority of his time searching for and gathering those who were suffering, messy, and broken. I believe that the messiest place should still be the Church. If those of us with mental illness don’t feel safe running to the Church in our most difficult moments, then we will run away

When I speak at gatherings or interview others online, I hear the same stories over and over of people living with mental illnesses who have been deeply wounded and have left their churches. Even for me, the hardest space to be truthful about my own struggles with depression, anxiety, and hypomania is the Church. It shouldn’t be this way. It doesn’t have to be this way. The Church can do better. And it should do better.

We can start by learning to hold space for those who are struggling. Sit with us in our fears, our darkness, and our despair without trying to fix us or give advice. Please don’t give us Bible verses about having the “joy of the Lord” or send links to healing miracle stories. Unless asked, please don’t add us to prayer chains and show disappointment when we don’t end up in the answered prayer column. Holding honest space requires empathy and not sympathy. It can get uncomfortable, but it means everything when you continue to show up and be present.

We must initiate careful conversations in and at church. We can’t pretend that everyone is okay. Words matter. We must use medical terms properly. Please don’t say things like “I am so OCD about cleaning,” or “he was being so bipolar, changing his mind so many times.” This trivializes our experiences. We need new language when talking about mental health disorders. Use medical terms for actual medical illnesses.

We should be open to continued dialogue and education about mental illness. There need to be intentional events and gatherings within the church that don’t include inspirational stories of miraculous healing. That only pushes away those that have not been healed. Mental illness is awkward, uncomfortable—but we need to acknowledge, listen, and enter in. We need to hear stories from those who have battled and continue to battle clinical mental illness. Believe us when we tell you about our experiences. Know that healing is not linear and that we will have recurring symptoms—and love us through them. Take the time to create deep and meaningful connections. I know that the greatest gift you can give during a depressive or manic episode is time and connection. It sounds so simple, but we must keep showing up for people again and again, even when it is hard and heavy.

Most of all, we need pastors and church leaders willing to admit that the Church doesn’t have all the answers. Lead with authenticity and vulnerability because it gives us permission to do the same. I am convinced we must make the Church a messy, sacred sanctuary for the suffering. If we truly listen and love like Jesus, we can smash the stigma around mental health and open our arms wide for the messy, the hurting, and the broken. Just like Jesus.

Shaley is a speaker, vlogger, and mental health advocate who aims to dismantle the stigma around mental health and create a safe community for those that struggle. She lives with bipolar 2, and is passionate about educating and empowering others about mental health disorders. She talks to other women about living with mental illnesses at SheLoves Magazine in a monthly segment named “Sisters in Mental Illness.” Shaley is also an elementary school teacher and an event planner. You can connect with her on instagram @messybeautywithshaley and Facebook @Messy Beauty with Shaley