I have shifted most of my mental health writing over to the blog on the Mental Health Association in Delaware’s website. (There are also lots of other staff, volunteers and others who contribute to the work blog). But because I often hear misconceptions about mental health, I figured I’d like to address it here too. These are a few of the myths that continue to reverberate in regards to mental health, lifestyle, and spirituality, as well as my thoughts on each as a Christian, mental health professional, and person with lived experience.
Myth #1: You can pray your way out of it.
God gives us many tools to deal with illnesses. Prayer is how we should always respond to any health crisis, and it is powerful. But there are also other important steps to take. For example, antibiotics for infections; splints for broken bones; antidepressants for clinical depression. The brain is an organ which is susceptible to illness like any other organ. Can you imagine telling a cancer patient that they should skip the chemo and rely on prayer to get through their illness? Why would we do the same with a depressed patient?
Myth #2: Organized religion is damaging to mental health.
On the other end of the spectrum, prominent psychiatrists in the past have viewed organized religion as damaging, and high levels of religious involvement as symptomatic of mental disorders. However, a growing body of more recent research suggests that spirituality does improve mental health, especially if it is practiced in communion with others. While specific events such as abuse by a church authority are without a doubt damaging to mental health, spiritual faith and religious connection overall are often invaluable to our mental health, and should not be viewed as separate from, or incompatible with, our mental health.
Myth #3: If your faith is strong enough, you’ll never need to “go on meds.”
Again, research shows that spirituality practiced in connection with others improves our mental health. But this does not mean that the faithful are immune to illness. A person who is so depressed that they can’t get out of bed may find the church life-saving. They may also find that an antidepressant gives them the ability to get up and get to church. Hearing their condition joked about or referred to as a weakness will not encourage them to come back, and this is a real shame, since a number of people in recovery find the church to be a lifeline. We need to be careful with our words.
Myth #4: Christians don’t get depressed or kill themselves.
Unfortunately, they do. Just like Christians are not immune to cancer, diabetes, or heart disease, they are not immune to brain disease. Choices can sometimes raise our risk of getting a variety of illnesses – what we eat and whether we exercise for example – but whether we get sick is not directly predicted by our lifestyle, and we have a tendency to label brain disease as the fault of the patient much more than we do other diseases, which is not accurate or helpful.
Myth #5: A healthy lifestyle means your mental health will be A-OK.
I know many individuals who work out regularly, eat a healthy diet, make time to serve others, socialize, go to church and just basically do all the “right things,” and still experience a mental health disorder, in many cases requiring medication to manage. While a healthy lifestyle absolutely helps, it does not guarantee perfect health in the brain (or any other part of the body.)
Myth #6 Life-long medication is the only way to recover.
Medication does not work for everyone, and furthermore, it should not always be the first course of action. If you are NOT living a healthy lifestyle, if you are drinking or using drugs, if you are lonely and isolated, then your risk for developing depression or another mental health disorder is increased. These conditions are very real, but like any other health condition, physical and behavioral changes can improve and sometimes heal them before medication is even needed.
Additionally, if a person does need medication and takes it for a period of time, they may eventually no longer need it. Depending on the type and severity of the condition, some people may need medication throughout their lifespan (similar to medications for other chronic health conditions), and some may just take it “as needed.” The most important thing to remember, is to follow the guidance of your therapist and doctor, whose objective and well-informed perspectives are needed for the best outcome.
Myth #7: People who have mental illness are just lazy/faking it/seeking attention.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say that no one has ever faked a mental illness in order to get out of working, but the vast majority of people with mental illness want to be able to work. They want to be able to actively live their lives and do all of the things that healthy people do. They also want help. If someone is seeking attention, it’s probably because they need attention. We certainly shouldn’t be shaming people for asking for help, even if they do it in a way that is unappealing.
The body, mind and soul are connected in ways that we don’t really understand, but we do know it’s important to care for all three, which sometimes means asking for help. When it comes to mental health, hope and healing can be found in treatment, in caring for our bodies, and in embracing our faith.