Cast all your anxieties on Him, for He cares about you. I Peter 5:7
One of our prayer team members asked me to write on how to live as a Christian while also living with mental issues like depression, anxiety, body image issues and others. Again, I am not an expert in mental illness nor am I a medical professional. But here is my take on mental illness and Christianity.
Because of the Fall of Adam, we all are subject to imperfections. We all sin. We all get tired. We all get hungry, angry, frustrated, etc. We all get physical illnesses. They may be a cold, or the flu, or a fever. We have bodies that break. Most of us have broken an arm or a leg. Many of us or our children need braces to fix imperfect teeth. And there is no shame in any of these things. No one has ever felt ashamed because their child needed braces. We might feel annoyed if we have a headache, but no one feels ashamed because of it. When we are physically sick, most of us are pretty quick to run to the doctor, eager to get the treatment or medication that will fix the problem so that we can go on with our lives.
There are two kinds of physical illnesses—ones that are acute, and ones that are more long term. Examples of acute physical illness include a cold, flu, strep throat, etc. Medication and rest and some patience are needed and these illnesses generally peter out and we are back to restored health. Long term physical illnesses include things like cancer, diabetes, stroke, dementia and Parkinson’s Disease, among others. These are illnesses that generally are not going to get better. Most of us know someone with at least one of these illnesses, and unfortunately, in our lives, many of us will suffer from one of these as well. Again, there is no shame there. They are a part of generally every life.
If the human being is composed of body, mind and spirit, then we know that we get sick in more than just our bodies. At some point, most of us will suffer from some degree of “mental illness.” While “mental illness” may seem like a word term is associated with some degree of stigmatism, I would argue, what else would we call it? We all have been afflicted with physical illness—headache, cold, broken arm, etc. And likewise we are all afflicted to some degree with mental illness.
A mental illness is a disease of the mind. It is not a disease of the body, but of the mind. If the body can get sick, and we all know it can from experience, the mind can get sick as well. The sickness of the mind can be temporary—extreme stress, grief, and sadness might be due to a situation and can be temporary.
However, there are times when a condition of the mind is not temporary. While depression might be situational for all of us at time, such as when a loved one has passed away and we feel sad for a while, there are times when mental illness becomes chronic, something we deal with every day. There are people who have issues with depression and anxiety that are not situational, but come up every day. Just as there would be with a chronic physical illness, there should be no shame associated with a mental illness. There still is, in our society, and that is a sad thing. We should not have a stigma or a shame about mental illness.
How do we live as a Christian with mental issues? The same way as we live as a Christian with physical issues. We ask God for the strength to get through each day, and each challenge. We realize that God cares more about our efforts than our successes. Because success tends to be defined by society. What society sees as successful, in the eyes of God might be a failure. For instance, a person who is financially successful who uses nefarious means to attain that financial success might be seen in a positive light by a society that praises fame and fortune, but at the same time would not be seen in a favorable light by God, who prefers us to be people of honesty and integrity.
We should also avail ourselves of the people and services that help deal with mental illness. Just as God doesn’t expect us to go it alone with physical illness, He doesn’t expect us to go it alone with mental illness. This is why He calls people to be physicians of the body as well as physicians of the mind.
If the human being is body, mind and spirit, then people get spiritual illnesses also. Generally, the spiritual illnesses are a consequence of a physical or a mental illness. Spiritual illnesses include doubt and despondency—i.e. if God is so great, why has this malady befallen me? The “physicians” of the soul are the clergy. We go to the clergy for spiritual support. A priest or a pastor is not going to heal a broken leg, a medical doctor does that. But a priest can work with someone to heal a wounded soul.
Encouragers need to recognize that illness is a part of life. We can’t tell people to pretend they aren’t sick, or even tell them that all sicknesses can be healed, because some cannot. We can all encourage people to go to the proper place—a doctor, a mental health specialist or a pastor—to take care of whatever illness has come over them. We can all do our part to remove the stigma of illness-whatever kind it may be. We can also love people for who they are. I’m one hundred percent certain that people don’t want to be sick. Most sickness is not part of our own doing. We don’t go out seeking to break a leg or catch a cold or have a learning disability. Sickness is generally the consequence of living in a fallen world. We can validate those who are sick, that sickness is difficult. We can help those who are sick, whether it is listening, encouraging, or helping with something specific like a ride or a referral. The biggest thing we can all do is to accept others without judgment.
Spiritually, as we read in the Scripture verse from today, we should cast our anxieties before the Lord, and know that He cares about each of us. We all have heard the phrase “God doesn’t give us what we can’t handle.” I actually think that is a bad phrase. Rather, I prefer the phrase, “God helps us handle what we have been given.” Encouragers help those who are challenged to handle what they are challenged with.
Lord, You created each of us in Your image and likeness. The imperfections we each have are a result of a fallen world, which was not Your intention. As we work our way to Your Kingdom, help us to remember that Your Kingdom will be a place where there will be no more pain, sorrow or suffering. Help us therefore in the struggles we have in this life, whether they be physical, mental, or spiritual. Give healing and provide healers to treat our various maladies and wounds. And give comfort when healing is not possible. Give strength to those who suffer from any illness of body, mind, or spirit. And help me to be sensitive, encouraging and helpful to anyone who is suffering from any kind of illness. Amen.
There should be no stigma about any kind of mental illness—we’ve all got to work to purge our society of the stigma surrounding mental illness!
The Prayer Team now has its own dedicated website! There you may find a database for past prayer team messages as well as books by Fr. Stavros and other information about his work and St. John the Baptist Greek Orthodox Church in Tampa, FL.
These readings are under copyright and is used by permission. All rights reserved. These works may not be further reproduced, in print or on other websites or in any other form, without the prior written authorization of the copyright holder: Reading © Holy Transfiguration Monastery – Brookline, MA, Apolytikion of Abbot Marcellus © Narthex Press, Kontakion of Abbot Marcellus © Holy Transfiguration Monastery – Brookline, MA.
The Revised Standard Version of the Bible is copyrighted 1946, 1952, 1971, and 1973 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. and used by permission. From the Online Chapel of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.
Fr. Stavros N. Akrotirianakis is the Proistamenos of St. John Greek Orthodox Church in Tampa, FL. Fr. contributes the Prayer Team Ministry, a daily reflection, which began in February 2015. The Prayer Team now has its own dedicated website!
Fr. Stavros has produced two books, “Let All Creation Rejoice: Reflections on Advent, the Nativity and Epiphany”: “https://amzn.to/2t1rXwh and “The Road Back to Christ: Reflections on Lent, Holy Week and the Resurrection.” https://amzn.to/2WAcfG0
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