Mental Health Care: A Christian Response – Brad Jersak

My dear friend is a good man and faithful Jesus-follower. Truly. Kind and uplifting—effusive in his encouragement—completely love-able. A generous human being and effective communicator of the good news.

My friend is also in recovery from a very serious mental health crisis. It has been terrifying for him and his wife, for his children and his friends. His situation required urgent medical intervention. Hospitalization. Rigorous testing. Medication.

One and the same man—a beautiful spirit tormented by a physiological meltdown that assaulted his mind and emotions. How is that possible? Aren’t people of good faith who love the Lord supposed to enjoy abiding peace and emotional stability? So we once thought.

Not so long ago, mental illness was stigmatized in our society and either meticulously repressed or overtly condemned in the Christian culture of “sucking it up and holding together.”

We didn’t know what to do with conditions that couldn’t be preached out of us or held in check with Bible-laced platitudes. In fact, in the 1970s, two of my friend’s brothers suffered from serious mental illnesses of their own, and a common reaction from the community had been contempt for their parents, as if they were to blame… all the worse since the dad was also a pastor.

But you know what? We’ve come a very long way.

Granted, we’re currently drowning in a pandemic of anxiety disorders, chronic depression, and trauma-related disability. But at least we’re able to talk about mental illness openly without feeling the need to
shame or blame those who are suffering or assume that anyone who pursues therapy has lost their faith.

Now, in my friend’s case, the underlying issue was that he spent years enduring chronic stress, unknowingly wearing out his adrenal system. And what do a pair of fried adrenal glands mean for mental and emotional health?

I did some research and learned that our adrenal glands make cortisol, which is our body’s main stress hormone—our own built-in alarm system. I found out that when we’re under stress or in danger, cortisol levels increase to activate our fight or flight responses. It regulates our body systems, our mood, our motivation and our fear. And when a crisis passes by, our cortisol levels calm down so our heart, blood pressure and other systems go back to normal.

But what if you’re under constant stress long-term and the alarm system gets stuck in the “on” position?

So it was that my friend’s body began to react involuntarily and without warning, flooding his system with cortisol and then, because it destroyed his sleep cycle, his body was unable to clear it from his system. The result was weightgain, hyper-responsive and feelings of panic centered in his chest—as if he were about to die of a heart attack.

My friend’s descent was so severe that he said, “Eventually, any sound, movement, or touch felt like daggers to my mind. It was agony.”

Can we consider how his trial had nothing to do with wavering in his faith or knowing God’s love for him? Hearing that “Christians shouldn’t feel that way” would not only have been a vacuous platitude, but probably be better identified with the “accuser of the brethren”!

Holistic Support

But I have good news. That’s not the type of response my friend experienced. He told me that the primary emphasis from all his caregivers (doctors, nurses, counselors and psychiatrist) was on self-compassion, kindness, and showing mercy to himself. His family, friends and house-church fellowship were all consistently supportive.

But most of all, in those hours and nights of deepest darkness, my friend testifies to God’s goodness! In that gloomy abyss, he saw that only the suffering God, the One who bears our sins, sorrows and infirmities, could help.

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