Learning about mental health helps us love our neighbours and ourselves, writes psychotherapist Andrea Nwabuike
At the start of Grade 9, the weight of my future fell heavily on my shoulders. I lay awake most nights imagining I failed my classes, didn’t get into university and became the disappointment I feared I was doomed to become.
To calm the storm inside my mind and body, I played Kirk Franklin’s song "The Storm Is Over Now." Eventually I fell asleep, praying to experience the truth of the lyrics, "If I walk alone / I’m not on my own / I feel like I can make it / The storm is over now." This nightly routine, tossing between panic and peace, continued for a few months. Eventually, the storm passed.
At university years later, in a graduate-level human development class, I looked back on those nights and recognized that storm as anxiety.
Mental Health Research Canada reports nearly one-fifth of Canadians had experienced anxiety before the pandemic (diagnosed in themselves or family members). The prevalence of anxiety rose sharply throughout the pandemic, and has remained high in response to inflation, economic instability and other factors. Perhaps now more than ever, serious anxiety is a common aspect of life for many humans.
Still, many churches continue to operate with an underlying assumption Christians are, or should be, exempt from fear, worry and anxiety.
Kate Dewhurst of Vancouver, ministry director at Sanctuary Mental Health Ministries, knows firsthand the consequences of this assumption. "Two of the biggest problematic beliefs about anxiety that I’ve encountered in the Church are Anxiety is a sin and Anxiety must be overcome," she says. "I’ve heard pastors and leaders proclaim that as Christians we need to be a ‘non-anxious presence’ in the lives of others."
The implicit message is that anxiety is something we need to eradicate from our lives, "rather than a basic human emotion or a range of mental health challenges. If you are grappling with an anxiety disorder, as I have, hearing these messages can make it unsafe to admit you are experiencing anxiety, even to yourself, and to reach out for support, especially within the Church," says Dewhurst.
Christian mental health experts urge Christians to realize that denying mental or emotional suffering does not lead to freedom or healing, two realities the Church promises are available to believers. If the Church is not a safe place for people to share and receive support in their experiences of anxiety, says Dewhurst, many will continue to suffer alone.
"The shame associated with experiencing clinically significant anxiety intensified my experience of anxiety," she says. "Only once I was able to name it could I learn to process it. And actually naming it was a big part of recovery for me – identifying symptoms as symptoms and not seeing them as character flaws or a lack of faith."
Kern Stanberry of Toronto, adjunct professor of counselling at Tyndale University and director of New Hope Family Services, traces the predominant stigmas around mental health issues in the Church back to the split between the secular and spiritual realms during the Enlightenment period.
"Philosophers like Descartes and others essentially divided the world into these two realms, and with that [came] a division of science and religion," says Stanberry. "So that’s really the legacy of what we’re living, even today, where in the Christian community and also in the world there is this fundamental sense of dualism."
Stanberry challenges the Church to reject the dualism of Western culture in favour of a holistic perspective of the human experience, informed by both Scripture and scientific inquiry. He uses a ball of yarn to illustrate this integrative understanding of anxiety.
"PANIC ATTACKS ARE AWFUL. THE FIRST TIME I EXPERIENCED ONE I HAD NO IDEA WHAT WAS HAPPENING, AND I WAS FULLY CONVINCED I WAS GOING TO DIE."
"Think of about 50 different colours of yarn tangled in one big ball. Each of those colours can represent unique aspects of the effect of the Fall on the individual," says Stanberry.
"It could be some biological predispositions to certain conditions, there may be family of origin experiences … trauma, bullying, sexual abuse or even neurological, psychological or neurochemical imbalances that a person may just come to the world with." Stanberry also lists physical conditions like diabetes, cancer as a child or the death of a loved one.
"God offers us healing, liberation and hope as we accept Christ, but the way that works out in each of our lives would need to be through a process that can identify each of those yarns, and bring them to conscious awareness so that we can then surrender those things to the transforming power of Christ."
Anxiety can be understood as part of the human experience and also viewed as an invitation to a deeper experience of God’s presence. Deane Proctor, pastor of First Baptist Church in Charlottetown, P.E.I., has shared his own struggles with mental illness from the pulpit. He believes his vulnerability can be an invitation to others to experience the comfort God offers those struggling with mental health concerns.
"I don’t have depression or anxiety because of some type of failure, and so therefore God is putting a whammy on me and laying punishment on me," he explains. "God understands. God grieves, God is patient, God is gracious. God knows that when my depression flares up, and it’s nigh on impossible to get out of bed, there’s a good chance I’m not going to get to church today, or I’m not going to get to small groups tonight, or I’m not going to get to my daily devotionals today because I just can’t. My theology is such that God understands that, and He’s not about to stick additional burdens on us."
Proctor believes other Christians can have a negative impact on those who live with anxiety and depression through even subtle messages that we "need to clean ourselves up first to come into the presence of God." God will not turn us away, says Proctor, and if we can believe that more fully, "I think we will enjoy a much more authentic relationship with Him."
In fact, being in healthy Christian community can, ideally, help with anxiety. Especially when others view being present to those who are struggling as a privilege and responsibility. That is the beauty of church community.
"Experiencing extreme anxiety is a very unpleasant experience," says Kate Dewhurst. "Panic attacks are awful. The first time I experienced one I had no idea what was happening, and I was fully convinced I was going to die. These are truly experiences of suffering," she says. "Our faith calls us to be close to those who are suffering, just as God is near to those who are suffering. So we can be present, we can listen, and we can help connect people to appropriate medical, psychological and spiritual support."
Dewhurst also points out that support and encouragement do not flow in one direction only. Our brothers and sisters experiencing anxiety have powerful testimonies of faith that can challenge and edify their communities. Dewhurst says, "Hearing the stories of people who live with anxiety disorders can challenge the belief that anxiety is rooted in a lack of faith. There are immensely faithful people who live with difficult symptoms, and it’s important to understand their realities and how they make sense of their experiences in the context of their faith." Listen to their stories, says Dewhurst.
As an anxious 13-year-old, I clung to song lyrics that assured me I was not alone. God was with me in the storm of anxiety. His presence was not dependent on my positivity, nor was my faith nullified by my fears. The Church has an important role to play in demonstrating God’s compassionate presence, especially in our precarious and ever-changing times when anxiety is on the rise. The Church has an opportunity to listen, to seek to understand and learn from those struggling with anxiety.
RESOURCES ON ANXIETY
Anxiety Canada offers resources and programs to help people understand and manage anxiety, including reliable basic information, group therapy, an app, videos and a podcast. AnxietyCanada.com
Bounce Back is a free skill-building program managed by the Canadian Mental Health Association. Delivered over the phone with a coach and through online videos. CMHA.ca/Bounce-Back
The Sanctuary Course is an online course that helps churches raise awareness and start mental health conversations. SanctuaryMentalHealth.org
Shalem Mental Health Network offers therapy from accredited professionals who work from a faith-based perspective. Its clinic serves clients across Ontario, and its Congregational Assistance Program connects members with accredited local therapists in most parts of Canada. ShalemNetwork.org
The Anxious Christian: Can God Use Your Anxiety for Good? by Rhett Smith (Moody. 2012). A licenced therapist explains how anxiety allows us to face our fears and then make intentional decisions about issues such as career, marriage, money and our spiritual lives.
is a Toronto-based writer and therapist. Illustrative collage: Janice Van Eck; Images: Eric Muhr, Gabriel Ponton, Shutterstock, Jon Tyson