Challenging the Church's Approach to Mental Health

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After her husband died by suicide two years ago, Jessica Jiggetts was at a loss. The days felt never-ending. She ignored invitations to see friends. The once competitive biker no longer felt like exercising or going outdoors.

“I was depressed,” says Jiggetts, 52. “I had never gone through something like this before. I thought it was my fault. I wasn’t sure where to turn for help.”

A faithful Christian, she Googled resources and was surprised at the results. Mental health ministries — online ones and those that took place in person — seemed everywhere. She even found one at the Episcopal church she briefly attended at the time in Charlotte, North Carolina, which had launched a group called SOS (Survivors of Suicide) after several members experienced the death of friends and loved ones.

Taking It Beyond Prayer

“When I was growing up, the best advice you got from your pastor about anything to do with health was to pray,” Jiggetts says. “I was just astonished that there were Biblical teachings out there. I really needed a place where I could talk about my belief in the power of Christ at the same time as my struggle with human death and loss.”

Women Are Leading the Conversations Once Taboo 

The topic of mental health, once taboo in Christian communities, has increasingly come out of the shadows. Christians like Jiggetts, who today hosts a resource and peer counseling group for a small group of neighbors and friends, are becoming more common in faith communities. Pastors, authors, and ministry conferences have sprung up in recent years to address the matter. Oftentimes, it’s women leading the conversations. 

One of the biggest proponents of talking about mental health is evangelical author and Biblical teacher Kay Warren, who, with her husband Rick Warren, leads Saddleback Church. The Southern California megachurch is one of the largest and best known in the nation. After her son, Matthew, died by suicide in 2013, Warren became a major advocate for churches to change how they approach mental health.

It’s Not a Sin To Be Sick 

“Mental illness is part of our body,” Warren said in a speech last year to the Evangelical Press Association Christian Media Convention. “It’s a part of the physical part of our body. And when you can let people know that it’s not a sin to be sick and your church is a … safe place to bring your brokenness, then we’re beginning to remove the stigma.”

Just a few decades ago, it would be unusual to hear such commentary from a high-profile religious figure. Today, the subject of faith and mental health is its own subfield in pastoral studies.

A priest at Christ Church in New Haven, Connecticut, and a chaplain at Yale University, the Reverend Kathryn Greene-McCreight is among the leaders in the area. As someone with bipolar disorder, she has also seen firsthand how the church can at times fail Christians when it comes to mental health.That's part of why Greene-McCreight wrote Darkness Is My Only Companion: A Christian Response to Mental Illness. 

The book, at once a personal story of her own struggles as well as a guide for readers, has made Greene-McCreight a sought-out expert and advocate on how Christians can do better when it comes to faith and mental health.

“I have read much of the literature geared to the layperson on mental illness, eagerly searching for a book that would answer my questions: Does God send this suffering? If so, why? And why this particular kind of suffering? Why, if I am a Christian, can I not rejoice? What is happening to my soul?” Greene-McCreight writes.

They are questions that apply to many people alike.

Reports of People Experiencing Depression and Anxiety Are Up 300%

The subject of mental health has graced the front pages of newspapers over the last year as government officials and advocates have pointed to data about the effect of the pandemic on self-confidence, anxiety, and social development.

According to a report last year from the Kaiser Family Foundation, about 4 in 10 U.S. adults said they had symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder since the outbreak of COVID-19. The figure is an increase from the 10% who made similar reports in 2019.

20% of Adults Have a Form of Mental Illness

More broadly, the National Institute of Mental Health Disorders says that about 20% of adults in the U.S. have a form of mental illness in any given year, including depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and bipolar disorder. Mental illness diagnosis tends to increase when looking at poorer populations and people of color, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

The figures, which are ones Jiggetts was largely unaware of before her own mental health journey, are among the reasons she speaks out.

“I know what it’s like to be in serious pain and despair and feel like there may be nothing out there for me,” Jiggetts says. “If by talking and leading in public I can help even one person who experiences depression, then I feel like I have done my job as a Christian.”

Tags: Communication, Mental Health, Volunteering, wellness

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Written By

JD Turner

JD Turner is a writer and puppy parent based in Los Angeles. See Full Bio

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