“You are a success!” my psychiatrist exclaimed. “You are a success and I don’t see that very often.”
My mental health hasn’t been this good in a very long time. Apparently this is uncommon for a manic-depressive compounded with an anxiety disorder.
“Mental health” is a common phrase used in our society. Like our physical health and spiritual health, our mental health is an important aspect of our well-being. However, a distinction should be made between “mental health,” and “mental illness.” Caring for our mental health is not the same as treating a mental illness. Caring for our mental health includes things like getting enough sleep, taking breaks throughout your day, and surrounding yourself with a supportive community. Caring for a mental illness means having a psychiatrist to prescribe and monitor your medication, meeting with a therapist, and having positive coping strategies.
Bipolar, or manic-depression, is a complex illness requiring multiple medications. Lithium, the most prescribed drug for my illness, presented severe side effects. I asked to be taken off of Lithium. While many psychiatrists wouldn’t consider this, I was so thankful that she listened to me and found an alternative. After many months, we found the right combination and dosages of medication and I have my life back.
In Part 1, I suggested King David and Job may have had circumstantial mental illnesses. For other people, mental illness is a chronic condition. The Bible, while not specifically naming mental illnesses, does provide circumstantial evidence of mental illness based on literal translations of the Greek and Hebrew vocabulary. We know that Jesus welcomed all and healed all who came to him. Including the mentally ill.
Now we’re going to talk about the difference between “mental health” and “mental illness.”
Respect Mental Illness
We need to be careful when we use certain terms associated with mental illness.
Just because you are sad today, doesn’t mean you are depressed. “Depression,” a clinical term, goes beyond being really sad for a time. Losing a loved one can cause you to go through a season of circumstantial depression. Being stood up can cause sadness but not depression.
Having a moody week doesn’t make you Bipolar.
Liking your kitchen organized in a specific way does not mean you have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).
Bipolar, Depression, and OCD, just to name a few, are serious and painful illnesses. I believe that using these terms flippantly is disrespectful and diminishes the experience of those who suffer from mental illness.
Anxiety vs Worry
“Anxiety,” a common term used in our society, is also misunderstood. Someone recently asked me, “What does the Bible even say about mental illness?” The first thing my mind went to was Scripture about anxiety. The question prompted me to go to Scripture. “Anxiety” or “anxious” is the only term associated with mental illness used in Scripture, and I was surprised at what I found.
We must make a distinction between anxiety as a clinical mental illness and anxiety as worry.
The Greek merimnaō is defined as “anxious, troubled with cares, caring or providing for,” in a sense, worry.
Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?…Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.Matthew 6:25, 34
In these words Jesus is encouraging us not to worry about God’s provision for our daily needs, something that can be covered through prayer. It is not saying, “Don’t have an anxiety attack”–a chronic medical condition rooted in irrational fears, but to trust Him with all our needs.
My husband and I don’t make a lot of money and I worry sometimes about paying our bills, but I get on my knees and give my anxiety over our household provision to God. It is not irrational to wonder if bills will get paid when money is so tight. The Bible is clear that God will provide and He does.
“Anxiety” is used to demonstrate how Paul cares deeply for the churches and God takes care of us in our concerns. This usage of “anxiety” demonstrates deep care, not a mental illness.
Failure to distinguish mental illness from worry causes Christians to advise, “do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” While prayer is likely to help someone worrying about their financial situation, praying over a mental illness is akin to praying over cancer. Yes, you should pray, but the healing rests in God’s will. Sometimes He grants healing, sometimes he doesn’t.
Having an anxiety attack in the middle of the night because I’m worrying that my house is going to catch fire is not the same as a realistic concern like paying bills. It’s irrational.
Clinical anxiety has physical symptoms such as a racing heart, dizziness, hot flashes or sweating, and many others. I have experienced all of these symptoms. The stress of being able to pay bills doesn’t compare to this pain.
Like any mental illness, telling someone with clinical anxiety something like, “Just pray and give it up to God,” is dismissive and dangerous. Such statements are isolates, denies that person the community support they need and deters them from getting necessary medical help.
But how should you respond to the mentally ill? Whether you are struggling or you know someone who is, there are Biblical responses to mental illness. I will cover these in Part 3 of this series.