About a year ago, the woman teaching the Sunday School class in my church suggested in conclusion to her lesson that we should "throw away" our depression medication, our therapy appointment cards, and our books about mental illness. "Just come to Jesus," she said, "He will heal all." I think I've heard this dozens of times in my life, but it hurt me badly at the time. I was only recently recovering from a long, five-year episode of suicidal depression, and also in the midst of mothering a teen who was suffering suicidal depression. This advice felt like a slap in the face to all my struggles. But since then, I have spent some time trying to figure out what to say to those religious people who do not understand that not all problems are solved by simply "bringing them to Jesus."
Part of the problem is, I think, a lack of empathy. It can be easy to look at other people and only see where they are now, rather than where they have been. Understanding someone's whole life story takes a lot of time and effort, but for me, it often makes me realize how much they have achieved with what they were given. It makes me see them as heroes who have fought for every step rather than people who are at a low point. It is also easier to assume that people are stupid rather than that they've learned something you haven't.
Another problem is confusing cause and effect. It can be very easy to assume that when other people suffer problems, it is because they aren't making the right choices. If only they were more like us, we think, then they wouldn't have those problems. I don't have those problems, and it must be because of the differences between their lifestyle and mine. This is something akin to the assumption that if I've never had a car accident, it's because I'm a superb driver, rather than related to pure luck or only driving on streets that are have very little traffic.
Christ's Sermon on the Mount is a call, in my reading, to work together more as a community, to love and respect each other more, and to avoid judgment wherever possible. We are to focus on our own sins, not on those of other people, and to forgive everyone no matter what they have done. We are to mourn with and comfort those around us, not to judge them. But judgment is difficult to avoid when we talk about sin, or when we feel we are called to preach or help others.
What to do in the case of mental illness like depression?
Are there circumstances in which people are sinning and those sins are causing problems in their lives? Perhaps so. If you are suffering a mental illness, it is entirely possible that you will also have other problems that are attendant to that illness. But again, there may be confusion as to cause and effect here. You might ask if the supposed "sin" is the cause of the mental illness or if it is a result of the mental illness. My reading of the scriptures suggests that the "wicked" are often perfectly happy in their wickedness, while the righteous often suffer despite their righteousness. Consider this when you are tempted to point a finger at those suffering with depression.
Next, I would ask you to consider the idea that someone with a mental illness who is committing "sins" could better be able to see their own mistakes clearly and their path to Jesus if they have the proper medication, biofeedback mechanisms, therapy, or good information from books. It seems logical that it would be wise to solve the mental illness first, and then leave the soul to find their own way to God. Someone whose mind is clouded is not able to see clearly what is right and wrong or what to do next to help make their life better. If they can be helped to a better state, they will most likely fix their own problems. And if you, with your insistence that they don't need medication or therapy, push them back on their path to helping themselves, have you helped anyone to Jesus? Or the reverse?
Let me speak a little from my own experience. When I was in my most depressed state, I was grieving so completely that it seemed my mind and soul had no room for anything else. I would veer from one wild decision to another and back again, trying to get rid of the pain in my heart. I certainly did not want to continue to be depressed, but I was incapable of seeing clearly what to do to make myself better. I am glad that I had steady friends and family around me who continued to love me despite the darkness I was in. It is nearly impossible to make someone else change in a healthy way without them being able to see what change is needed, the path ahead, and what is wrong with the journey beforehand. All of this requires an executive function in the mind that is working properly. And depression destroys that. So, fixing that first seems like a good plan.
Furthermore, the worst possible thing for me in this situation was to draw my attention to the mess my life had become. I was very well aware of my problems. In fact, if anything I was hyperaware of these problems. Telling me to take my problems to Jesus didn't help, either. Because for me, part of my depression was also the inability to feel anything spiritual. It was like that part of me had died. God had died because whatever part of my brain that once communicated with him was also not functional. Calls for me to read scriptures more only made me feel sure that God truly did not love me anymore, for reasons that I could not comprehend. The insistence that I fast and pray more only made me more suicidal, because instead of feeling spiritually uplifted by focusing away from the impulses of the flesh, I felt only a meaningless and ever-present hunger.
If I were suffering from cancer, diabetes or heart disease, I am pretty sure that few people in my church would suggest that I should throw away my medications, ignore my doctor's advice and simply go to Jesus for healing. This does not mean that I believe that coming to Jesus has no power to improve my life. It only means that God has given us the sense to use every available option to help our physical selves first. And who is to say that finding the strength to go to the doctor in the first place, to have the faith to take medication, isn't inspired by a deep and perhaps abiding, but hidden faith in Christ in the first place? If I had had no faith at all, would I have cared about not killing myself? I don't think so.
I don't think it is diminishing Christ's power for anyone to use whatever other possibilities exist to improve themselves physically or mentally. I don't think that it means a lack of faith or a lack of understanding in the bounty of the Atonement to try to lift yourself up to receive it. I think that perhaps instead of pointing the finger at those who are suffering depression, we might as a Christian people do a better job of asking what we can do, listening to those who need help, and praying for them and for ourselves to be more kind, more sensitive and understanding, and to do whatever lifting needs to be done. Instead of coming to Jesus, perhaps people who are depressed need us to come to them, and to bring Jesus with us.