I struggle with mental health – and I love Jesus. Those realities aren't in conflict.

·5 min read

I love Jesus, and I have anxiety.

I love Jesus, and I take anti-depressants.

I love Jesus, and I go to therapy.

Years ago, I would never say those things publicly. The shame was too thick. The fear of what people might say would quickly overpower the need to be honest – with others and with myself.

Mental health conditions carry a lot of stigma in our society. But it often feels like the stigma, and the shame it brings, is even greater in faith communities.

Support for people with mental illness is missing

It seems, especially as Christians, we get the idea that mental health is a mystic, taboo subject. A lot of stigma and misperceptions surround mental health, largely stemming from lack of knowledge about the brain and lack of experience with mental illnesses in general, and there is often a lack of support and understanding for individuals and families who are dealing with mental health issues.

Many times, a mental health condition or serious mental illness is associated with an implied lack of faith, a sign of personal weakness or a character flaw, a lack of surrender to God, or even a punishment for sin.

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Granted, not one of us is perfect in our faith or our walk with God. We all have character flaws, weaknesses and probably have areas of our lives that we need to surrender to God or to trust him more. All of us need grace and forgiveness.

But when you tell a teenager (or her mother) that she just needs more faith or needs to pray more when she is suffering from symptoms of an illness that she can’t control and has no idea how to manage, those words pour burning coals on her already blistering soul.

Instead of drawing her toward the love of God, it pushes her away.

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Not to mention, it’s simply not true. The presence of an illness does not mean a lack of faith – whether that illness is based in the body or in the brain.

The reality is, we live in a fallen world with bodies that bear the consequences of the fall. We are prone to illness, and our systems can be easily thrown out of balance. The brain is an organ that is just as prone to dysfunction as the heart or a kidney.

Would we tell someone with a kidney disease that they just need to have more faith to heal? Or would we tell someone with diabetes that they don’t need to take insulin, they just need to pray more? Or that someone with cancer has sin in their life that they need to deal with, and then God will make them better? Well, unfortunately there are people out there who would say these things, but that is not only unkind but it’s also really bad theology.

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When someone is sick or suffering, you pray for them and love them and support them as they seek medical help and encourage them to take their medications and go through treatment.

Do I believe God can heal people of all sorts of illnesses and diseases? Absolutely. He can. And he does. But sometimes the struggles continue, sometimes the suffering endures, sometimes the pain lingers, and sometimes the hard thing doesn’t go away. And we may wonder: Did God hear me? Do I not have enough faith? Why won’t he bring healing? Where is the miracle?

And sometimes, when we don’t have the answer we want, we still get the answer we always need – because sometimes the answer to our prayers is simply the presence of God himself.

We always get the miracle we need most, because we always get Jesus.

Tendency is to separate faith and science

In the end, mental health conditions are simply that – health conditions. But if we’re honest, most of us don’t really understand mental health. We don’t really know how to talk about mental health. And we tend to separate faith and science (in this case, brain science) as if they are opposing forces at war with one another.

The brain is a complicated and beautiful mystery in many ways. Scientists and doctors are only beginning to scratch the surface of learning about the brain and how it works.

Maybe that’s why mental health has so much stigma. We simply don’t understand the brain like we do other organs. We’re still learning. Illnesses in the brain are complicated and often difficult to treat. They’re largely invisible, so it’s easy to lump them into a highly stigmatized category. And unless you or someone you love is living with a mental health condition, it may be hard to empathize with them and understand what they are experiencing.

Mental illnesses affect many Americans

But this is a critical topic that we really can’t continue to ignore. It affects so many of our friends, our neighbors, our children and ourselves.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness:

►1 in 6 youth experience a mental health condition every year.

►Half of all lifetime mental health conditions begin by age 14 and 75% by age 24.

►1 in 20 adults in the United States experiences a serious mental illness every year.

►More than 52 million adults in America are managing a mental illness.

These are no small numbers. Chances are there is someone in your life, maybe even someone under your roof, who has a mental health condition. This is too important to ignore.

Compassion and empathy begin with listening and understanding. Take time to learn about mental illness. You can help break the stigmas surrounding mental health and become a voice of acceptance and hope to those who live with mental health conditions.

Jennifer Tucker is the author of "Breath as Prayer: Calm Your Anxiety, Focus Your Mind, and Renew Your Soul," on sale in August. She lives in Georgia with her husband, Mark, and daughters Emma and Lilly. Jennifer is a devoted follower of Jesus and an advocate for mental health. Learn more at BreathasPrayer.com

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Stigma of mental illness has no place among Christians