[Note: This is the first in three-part series of articles written several years ago for a local publication. The purpose was to do some education about mental health, especially for a church audience. I thought it might be good to revisit.]
CRAZY! Lunatic. Maniac. Nuts.
These words are easy for most of us to say. We use them all the time to describe something that doesn’t “make sense”. Or someone who is doing something that we don’t understand or with which we disagree.
What gets tougher is when we use the words “mental illness.” And trying to tease out what we mean by those words, especially as people of faith, is a harder task.
Depression and Anxiety are not moral problems.
Maybe it is tough for us as Christians, because for a long time we have looked at illnesses such as depression or anxiety as moral problems. We don’t look at the biochemical reasons why someone might be “down” or “worried.” Sometimes we think or even say, “Well, they just don’t have enough faith.”
The tough part of that response is that is misses Jesus’s compassion for ALL people who are hurting and vulnerable. And someone who cannot leave their home because of crippling panic attacks or someone who thinks about their own death nearly every hour of every day is hurting and vulnerable.
There are certainly times when we need to be reminded of God’s hope for all of us and times when we should remember that we have been asked by Jesus to “be anxious for nothing.” Those times may reflect a struggle in our life, but that is different from a mental illness.
What is a mental illness?
Mental illnesses go by names like Panic Disorder, Schizophrenia, Major Depressive Disorder, and Bipolar Disorder. And the line that gets crossed from “struggle” to illness is a line where the illness is causing serious problems in your life.
For example, someone who overeats may be having a struggle and may be experiencing some negative effects that come with being overweight, but that is very different from another person who begins to have diabetes or cardiovascular effects from the excess weight. At some point, what may have started as a “condition” is now out of control and dramatically affecting that person’s life.
Many people experience a panic attack at some point in their life. Panic attacks usually involve your heart racing, shallow breathing, feeling VERY scared, muscle tightness, shakiness, narrowing of vision, and quite often happen in a situation where you may be safe, but your body and your brain are giving off major danger signals. Many people experience this!
But then what fewer people experience is when they begin to fear having the panic attack again. This leads people to avoid situations where the attacks have occurred. Then you begin to avoid activities that might lead to an attack. And then you are afraid to even leave the house because home seems the only place that is safe. That is Panic Disorder.
Illnesses needs treatment.
And when a condition rises to the level of an illness, most of us seek treatment by someone who specializes in that illness. If you begin to have frequent urination, dry mouth, have extreme hunger, fatigue, irritability, frequent infections, blurred vision, and other symptoms, you would talk with your doctor about the possibility of diabetes.
It is not much different if for over two weeks you have difficulty making decisions, feel fatigued, guilty, hopeless. If you have a change in your sleeping, either sleeping way too much or insomnia. If you felt your appetite change and began to lose interest in activities that used to be fun. And if you began having thoughts about your death or even suicide, then you would want to talk with someone who could help with your Depression.
And even though sometimes we may feel “crazy” when we our emotions and thinking are like these examples, we are not. We have an illness. And God’s response to people who are hurting and vulnerable is compassion. And sometimes we need to have compassion on ourselves too and make effort to get the treatment that we need.
That doesn’t make you crazy. It makes you smart.