It’s OK Not to Be OK: A Q&A on Mental Health and Following Jesus
*Note from editor: May was Mental Health Awareness Month. To close out May, we thought it appropriate to feature this interview by one of our contributors, Emily Andrews.
A graduate student in clinical mental health, Rachel Stewart is passionate about the intersection of counseling/therapy and Christianity. She is currently working towards her final course in crisis counseling, along with her practicum and internship. This May—nationally recognized as Mental Health Awareness Month—we sat down to talk about mental health and the Church, her own journey with depression, and the hopeful paradox of finding strength in weakness.
This Q&A reflects Rachel’s personal views as a follower of Christ and a student, not as a professional counselor.
What are your thoughts on Mental Health Awareness Month?
It’s important because it opens conversations. It doesn’t matter where you are in the world; you can see what someone’s going through if they post it on social media. Now people can talk about things that typically they’re not given a stage to talk about.
But there’s another side of the coin that worries me. Lately, mental health has been something that people are glamorizing, like, “Oh look, I have a problem. Look at me, pay attention to me.” Is this watering down what people are going through? Do you actually know what [depression] is, or do you just feel sad? And then you have someone who actually does have major depressive disorder, but people tend to brush them off. It’s like, “Everybody’s on medication now. Everybody’s depressed now.”
Where do you hope to see this conversation going in the future?
It’s something that people don’t love talking about in the church, because frankly it’s weird. It has to do with health, but with things that are unseen. When you have a physical disease, you go to the doctor, and it’s easy to see what the issue is. But for so long, people have said, “Oh, it’s their soul; they’re just ‘dead.’ They’re not really Christian. They’re not ‘alive.’” When really, that might not be the issue.
What is it like to pursue this goal of helping others, while dealing with a lot of the same issues personally?
I’ve been experiencing my symptoms for about three years now. At first, I said, “I’m not diagnosing myself. I’m not going to take medication. Not until I go see a doctor and get counseling.” I took a break from school because I was going to start counseling people soon, and I just didn’t feel well.
Speaking personally, and not as a counseling student, I tried everything. I did this guided-prayer thing with a pastor, I fasted, I did all of it. It wasn’t helpful when people asked, “Is there some hidden sin your life?” I told them honestly, no, and if there is, I literally have no idea what it is. I think that was something that was hurtful. I don’t want us to stop asking that question—I think it’s important to give people space to confess their sins. But just assuming that a person is experiencing something primarily because they’re sinning can be damaging.
How has your faith grown through this process?
I was reading a commentary on Job and everything he went through. His friends were essentially telling him, “Hey, you’re going through all this stuff directly because you did something wrong.” But as readers, we know he was experiencing those things because he loved God and he was righteous. That story changed my perspective. It helped me realize God is in control even when I don’t understand, and I don’t believe that He is punishing me for something. I’ve started to see that this experience is refining me. It’s helping me to become more like God, in that it causes me to think more about what people are going through. It has humbled me. I am learning how to fight spiritually, and how to love without having positive feelings all the time.
What do you wish more people knew about mental disorders?
While we cannot do what we do without research, it’s important to not to project research onto one person. It’s really important to hear their story. Each person experiences their health and their mind so differently, because God made us so different. So—not forgetting what meta-analyses say about certain disorders—just hearing people’s stories and trusting them is important. Not being afraid to press into the darkness with other people.
So often, there’s this line of thinking that goes, “If I’m not happy or I’m not joyful, then I’m not representing Christ well.” It’s almost giving ourselves too much power or too much credit. We need to remind ourselves of God’s lordship over everything and not approach wellness with such a privileged point of view. A lot of voices who are having opinions on mental health, especially in the church, are coming from a very privileged place to say, “If something’s wrong then you’re doing something wrong.” And I know there are a lot of voices in the world that have been oppressed that would beg to differ.
What encouragement do you have for those who are struggling?
In Scripture, we read of people that experienced hardship when it wasn’t their fault—that’s just how this world is. It’s broken. But the bigger story is about who we are in Him and just trusting that we do have the mind of Christ, even if our physical mind is deteriorating. We have a mind that ultimately still is Christ’s. You are not your condition.
For those who are struggling mentally, I would encourage them to give themselves grace and to rest in the truth of the Resurrection. If you believe the Resurrection actually happened, then even though you are a victim of your mental state, God is going to make something beautiful. Keep going. And even if your disorder doesn’t subside, don’t let the world construct what it means to be a Christian or what it looks like to be a Christian. Know that being faithful in long-suffering, and just resting in God—it’s a beautiful thing to acknowledge our weakness and acknowledge our dependence on God. We are loved no matter what our mind tells us. We’re not beyond His love and His grace no matter what our mind, mental state, might look like.