In Church, I Was Told My Mental Illness Didn't Exist. Here's How I Got Help
The panic attacks arrived before puberty did, and they were relentless. In the shower, at school, while trying to fall asleep — it was impossible to escape the terror I felt as I began hyperventilating and thought I was going to die. A devout Christian my entire life, I wondered if God was punishing me with my panic attacks. I didn't tell anyone what was happening except for a few middle school friends who were no more equipped to handle my panic than I was. My parents are pastors, and they've always been nuanced in their views of mental health, but I didn't receive proper treatment for a decade because I was so afraid to talk about it — the church had created such stigma around mental health that I couldn't admit what was going on.
The lies I heard in church and about mental illness — from leaders and fellow parishioners — were dangerous and pervasive. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 20 percent of children between 13 and 18 years old have a mental health condition. But I didn't know how to ask for treatment, especially when I felt anxious just thinking about the panic attacks. I assumed that if I ignored it, it would disappear, until I replaced that belief with an even more dangerous thought: If I prayed enough, it would all go away.
I finally received my diagnosis of major depressive disorder and general anxiety disorder after being hospitalized for suicidal ideation, and I was able to begin the path to recovery. But that journey included reprogramming some of the things I believed all my life. Writer Robert Vore blogs about the intersection of faith and mental health and started a podcast, CXMH, about the topic. He tells Bustle he isn't surprised by my experience. “If you look at it from a larger historical perspective, you can find a lot of reasons why the church doesn’t do a great job with mental health,” he says. Psychology Today notes that damaging attitudes toward mental health date back to Biblical times: "People did not think of ‘madness’ (a term that they used indiscriminately for all forms of psychosis) in terms of mental disorder but of divine punishment or demonic possession."
One of the most harmful things I internalized from the church was that my mental illness was my fault. I had so much internalized guilt about the fact that I hadn't been able to make things go away, and it often came from fellow Christians chiding me for not giving my anxiety to God, as some put it. "If someone was like, 'Oh yeah, I’m a diabetic,' you wouldn’t say, 'Not if you have Jesus,'" Vore says. "We have tangible evidence of these things. With most mental health things, we don’t." Mental illness is never your fault, and prayer alone is not a sustainable treatment option.
In the Bible book of Matthew, it says this: "Keep on asking, and you will receive what you ask for. Keep on seeking, and you will find. Keep on knocking, and the door will be opened to you." Without a diagnosis, I clung to that verse like someone lost at sea would cling to a raft. I dedicated myself to praying and fasting in the hopes that I could trick God into healing me. My church leaders had other ideas on how to cure me. While I never underwent an actual exorcism, I sometimes had church leaders command demons to leave me when I opened up about my anxiety.
It was never explicitly said that I shouldn't talk about my mental health, but the responses I got once I opened up about the necessity of medical treatment for mental health seemed to speak volumes. An acquaintance commented on a Facebook post and asked if I really thought someone could be clinically depressed and a Christian. Others empathized with my story, but continued to share the damaging rhetoric that made it so hard for me to seek help. Recovery did come, but it came through doctors and medication. Vore says churches have to hold themselves to a high standard if they want to be seen as safe havens for people who are suffering. "If you’re saying, 'We’re a place you should come in pain or in suffering,' the burden is on you to handle it well," he tells Bustle.
When I finally decided to seek help, I chose a Christian counseling center that promised support for anxiety and depression because I was so nervous about therapy. We ended each session with prayer, which I liked, and my counselor, a mental health counseling intern, was extremely kind. But we never once discussed medication in the year we saw each other, even though my symptoms eventually worsened to the point that I couldn't leave the house. This isn't something that surprised me. I'd always viewed medication as a "cop-out," a sign that I was embracing my mental illness instead of dedicating myself to praying it away. But I gradually learned that if medication works for you, using it doesn't make you weak.
Of course, this isn't everyone's experience with the church, or even my experience with all the churches I've attended. Even though I've had some problematic experiences with the church, I'm optimistic that Christians can do better. Vore says he's encouraged by the number of pastors who tell him they want to do a better job. He's working on developing resources for churches that are trying to break mental health stigma. "If we say God heals people through surgeons, I can’t for the life of me figure out why he can’t heal through counselors or psychiatrists," he tells Bustle. I often joke that I'm a big fan of both Jesus and the anti-anxiety drug Klonopin. When I was younger, I didn't think the two could co-exist, but now my worldview is big enough for them both.
If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, call 911, or call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.