Carlene Hill Byron is the former editor of “New England Church Life” and “The New England Christian.” She has volunteered for many years with mental health organizations and as a lay hospital chaplain. She belongs to Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Brunswick, Maine, and recently retired from a job in nonprofit fundraising. Carlene is the author of “Not Quite Fine: Mental Health, Faith, and Showing Up for Each Other,” which was MennoMedia’s CommonRead for Apr.-June.
Thirty years ago, I was dismayed that faith communities were so unwilling to encourage people experiencing emotional distress to seek medical help and professional counsel. Today, after having received more than four decades of professional counseling and medication, I’ve become dismayed that faith communities have started believing that professional mental health care is the only resource people of faith can recommend to those in emotional distress.
The body of believers that God has gathered contains, in itself, key components for achieving good mental health. For good mental health, people need meaning and purpose. We need places to belong. We need to experience ourselves as valued. And these are all things we find in a healthy community of faith.
Most importantly, as people of faith, we know where hope is found. It’s not located in plans that can be dashed by the unanticipated reverses of a pandemic or economic downturn. It’s not found in medicines that may moderate, but never cure, the emotional turmoil we experience as a result of personal trauma or social suffering.
Hope lives beyond us.
It’s independent of us. Hope exists separate from our plans and our dreams and our own imagined hopes. Hope lives in the being and presence of our God, who is always with and for each of us. As people of faith, we live in a hope that transcends everything in this world. As people of faith, we can encourage those who are experiencing times of struggle not to seek safety in hopeful feelings, which may be elusive and are always transient. Instead, we can securely direct them to the solid rock that is our hope in God.
God has equipped pastors, lay leaders and ordinary Christian believers to help support one another through mental health challenges. Individually, we may not be prepared. But as the body of Christ, we can offer encouragement to help one another manage life’s challenges.
To offer support in these ways is not to deny the value of professional mental health care and medications. It’s simply to allow the people whom God has called and gifted to serve in these ways to handle these responsibilities. As a people of faith, we can provide inestimable benefit by standing with sufferers as they test one treatment after another, hoping to find a remedy.
Before COVID-19 sent mental health diagnoses skyrocketing in the U.S., the U.S. Centers for Disease Control had already asserted that half of us would be diagnosed with mental health problems in our lifetime. That is to say, they projected that half of us will experience poorer mental health than the other half. And if you remember your basic math, you have to agree. If mental health exists on any kind of continuum, then half of us are always doing better than the other half.
But that doesn’t mean half of us will experience mental illnesses that require professional care. What it means is that half of us, faced with the suffering that comes with life in this world, will find ourselves more struggling more than others. Those of us who find ourselves struggling may need, at some times, the support and encouragement of the other half, who aren’t experiencing such a deep struggle.
Some lives are just more difficult. And most people with difficult lives still manage. We manage much better when faithful people surround us. Together, built into the great house in which God dwells, we enjoy a stability and a majesty that no one enjoys alone. And together, we find the meaning, purpose, belonging, value and hope that our God intends for us all: the mental health basics that are inherent in our communities of faith.
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