First things first. While this is a specific discussion on my struggles to preach with mental illness, this can still apply to those who aren’t ministers, as well as to those who haven’t been clinically diagnosed with a mental disorder. We are all called to serve our Lord in a variety of ways, and in doing so, we may all fight through times of discouragement, anxiety, and depression.
You should also know I am not writing this as professional psychologist, psychiatrist, or mental health therapist. Instead, I write as a patient to such professionals. Within the last ten years, I’ve been diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and even Schizophrenia. I also struggle with panic attacks and other, more generalized anxiety disorders.
It is easy to look at that list of mental illnesses and be dismissive of them. In fact, I’m not even convinced that I have all of those disorders. But I know I suffer from something. There are times when my avolition becomes absolutely paralyzing. I endure panic attacks every so often, and have crying spells even more regularly (for no rhyme or reason, seemingly). At times I’m entirely convinced that people are conspiring to hurt me, even by those who are closest to me. There are several times where I socially shut down and quit talking without giving it a thought. I could go on to mention some other troubling symptoms of mental illness, but I’ll stop here by simply saying that living with these anxieties presents many challenges which others may not face (or may not face as regularly as others).
So, over the last ten years, I’ve been trying to succeed as a father, husband, and Christian despite my mental and emotional struggles. And over the last eight of those years, I’ve also been a full-time preacher.
Preaching can be a highly rewarding work, while also presenting unique challenges of its own. The social expectations, the management of conflicts and personalities, and constant approaching deadlines are enough to stress any preacher. It’s not easy placing yourself in a position where you’re constantly critiqued, and where everyone knows, and gets to comment on, how much you’re getting paid. Coupling those challenges with someone who battles mental illness can make things…interesting, to say the least.
So that is the struggle. Now we must turn to the solutions as we move forward as faithful servants of God. We could dwell on how hard things are for those of us who deal with mental illness (and we often do); it is more fruitful to learn what measures we can take to ensure our service to the church is effective and pleasing to Jesus.
Balance your time and energies. The possibility for burn out is there for any student, any professional, and any preacher who doesn’t exercise balance in his life. But for those of us who can become so easily overwhelmed and exasperated, this balanced approach isn’t optional. We must find time to decompress. I’ve been able to achieve this in the following ways. First, I find that physical hobbies, like tennis and cooking, are able to distract and detach me from my work. Second, have at least one day out of your week that is completely apart from the ministry, providing you and your family with the quality time you need. This might not always be possible, but it should be something you pursue. Third, realize there are three parts of the day (morning, afternoon, evening), and that you should only find yourself working in two of those (thanks, Neal Pollard, for that one).
Surround yourself with positive people. Those with mental illness have great anxiety caused by how negatively they perceive themselves, or how critically they are viewed by others (or, how critically they believe they are being viewed). Some refer to this as toxic shame, an unreasonable and unhealthy amount of guilt that just won’t go away. To counter such negativity, you must surround yourself with positive, understanding, and loving people. I’m thankful to serve at a church where I am surrounded with praise and love. That doesn’t mean we are immune to improvement and the need to be constructively criticized, because we all need that. But what you don’t need is any help feeling less about yourself than you already do. Find the right people to be around.
Watch out for substance abuse. The statistics are staggering; those who have mental illness are at a much higher risk to abuse alcohol, prescription drugs, and illicit drugs. This, in part, is because they will try to self-medicate their anxiety and depression away by alcohol and drug use. Don’t resort to this type of behavior. Not only is it sinful, it will be terribly difficult for you to stop, and can actually create more depression and anxiety in the long run.
Embrace that you’re different. I once asked a psychiatrist how people in third world countries cope with mental illness, and if they even struggle with things like anxiety and depression. He assured me they do, but that they don’t look at it as the curse that we often times do. He said they are embraced for their ability to be creative and insightful, being highly esteemed in their communities as thinkers, planners, and problem solvers. Now, I’m not saying that battling mental illness is always a blessing, but it can actually provide advantages that others might not have.
Get professional help. It is helpful to talk to your preacher or peers about what you’re going through. They may guide you in areas of thankfulness and self-worth, which can have an awesome impact on your psyche. They will pray with you and for you, and encourage you to pray as well. Prayer has certainly been a vital part of what has helped me. However, most preachers and friends aren’t professional psychiatrists or psychologists. You might need to have a trained therapist help you realize why you think the way you think (and thus feel they way you feel, and act the way you act). You might need a prescription from a psychiatrist. There is no shame in that. Sometimes some brethren might act as if your anxiety and depression exist because you don’t know your Scriptures enough or your relationship with Christ isn’t what it should be (which is highly insulting, by the way). Never mind them; do not be hesitant to find the professional help you need. I can’t imagine where I’d be without it.
Don’t wallow in melancholia. This is, perhaps, my greatest temptation. While wrestling with excessive worry and sadness, I’m quick to put on my headphones, crank up some woe is me music, isolate myself, and reflect on how difficult life is and how I’d rather just be done with it; which is the exact opposite of what we learned earlier, to surround yourself with optimism. Don’t allow yourself to dig into further depression. Find reasons reasons to be thankful. Visit someone in the hospital. Go exercise. Open up some blinds and let the sunshine in. Serve someone that you know has a need. Do something that is bigger than yourself. While you need to relax and decompress, don’t allow yourself to become too idle.
Consider a special verse. Scripture serves as a solace for those of us with mental illness, and really, for anyone going through times of distress. There are some great verses on anxiety (Mt. 6:25-31; 1 Pe. 5:7). There are others that provide hope and optimism (Ro. 8:18; 2 Co. 7:6; He. 13:5-6; Mt. 11:28-30). Some of my favorites are the ones which push me to be stronger (Jsh. 1:9; 1 Co. 15:58; 16:13). But there is one verse which I repeat to myself daily, a verse which speaks to me as a very flawed man trying to contribute to a very special, divine kingdom: Ephesians 3:20. Now to Him who is able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power that works within us.
This means so much to me. It means God can use all of us, despite our pasts, our misgivings, and our flaws. It means I can accomplish more than I thought I could because of His strengthening presence and Spirit. It means the kingdom isn’t limited by my mental illness. It means I am not defined by my mental illness, but by my growing relationship with Jesus Christ.
By James Coker
A follow-up article by James’ wife on living with someone who is fighting mental illness can be found here.