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“You just need to pray more.”
Those were the first words spoken to me as a teen when I admitted I was struggling with anxiety. They were soon followed by “Christian” cliches, like:
“Let go and let God. Don’t worry; Be Happy.”
The more I heard these statements, the worse I felt. And if young adults like myself continue to hear these stigmas and believe them, they will continue on a downward spiral of suffering. So how can we stop this vicious cycle? Addressing what a stigma is, why stigmas are damaging, and how young adults can combat them are three ways that I believe can help.
What is a stigma?
A stigma is defined as “a set of negative and often unfair beliefs that a society or group of people have about something.” An example would be calling someone crazy if they struggle with mental health. When expressed in Christian contexts, however, these can be especially damaging to our faith.
“You’re suffering because you’re sinning.”
“Anxiety is a failure to trust God.”
“Depression is a sin.”
Statements like these carry much weight and help no one. Instead, they cause honest and faithful Christians to question their sanity, their relationship with God, and how much they can trust others. When I first heard them, I felt alone, fearful, and ashamed. Can you relate?
Why are stigmas so damaging?
The more young adults hear and believe negative and often untrue assumptions about their mental health, the less likely they are to reach out for help.
During my early twenties, I vividly remember attending a charismatic worship service for healing. I decided to share my struggles with anxiety and physical health with the small group and was eager to have them pray with me. The next day, however, I was asked by many if I was healed yet. When I said no, my faith was questioned. Had I not believed or prayed hard enough to be healed? That moment seared an untrue belief in my mind: If I was a good enough Christian, then I wouldn’t be suffering.
While I’m confident the intentions of those who prayed with me were pure, the way people talk about mental health can cause serious damage. I stayed quiet for many years after that service and was often fearful to tell people what I was going through because I felt humiliated and judged.
Adolescents who believe these untrue perceptions then typically face grave discrimination from those around them. This is because stigmas can cause others to mistreat individuals based on those negative and unfair perceptions. I can’t count the number of weird glances, avoided conversations, and unkind words I’ve received while struggling with anxiety and depression. But the reality is that these often came from well-meaning individuals who didn’t know how to handle my vulnerability or respond with wisdom.
The more those around me judged my struggles, the less likely I reached out for help. And why? Even though I had a few supportive friends who encouraged me to seek counseling, all I could hear were accusations of my faith and sanity: You wouldn’t struggle if you were really a Christian. Jesus died for your anxiety, so why aren’t you living in freedom? Jesus is the only counselor you need.
Stigmas cut deep and leave wounds that are hard to heal. They paralyze individuals from getting help, causing them to believe something is wrong with them and that no one would understand. Or, when they finally acknowledge they need help, they are too ashamed to get it. It took me a long time to start exchanging my friends’ truths for the wounds that split me open. So how did I do it?
How can young adults combat these stigmas?
- “Don’t harbor self-stigma” (NAMI).
- If we want to fight negative and false assumptions about our mental health, we have to begin by not believing them ourselves – or allowing them to stop us from living. This is a process and a challenge. It’s not as easy as “just not thinking about them”. Words cut deep, so this requires us to realign our identity with Christ and what He says about our struggles instead of the world and those judging us. This looks like reading Scriptures that tell us who God says we are (Psalm 139:14), but also acknowledging that God didn’t create us to face these battles alone (Genesis 2:18). This process takes perseverance and time.
- Seek help for your mental health from different angles.
- Let’s be real with ourselves. When we are struggling, it is definitely important to check out our spiritual lives. Things like reading our Bibles, praying, going to church, and having supportive Christian friends are crucial to our well-being. But we cannot stop there! Mental health struggles require us to acknowledge that many other factors can also play a role. Things like getting help from a therapist, taking better care of our bodies, or looking at how our environment at home contributes are important.
- Reach Out to Trusted Sources.
- At the end of the day, those struggling need to know that they are not alone and it is okay to not be okay. In my life, this looked like telling my friends and family what I was going through, and ultimately, biting the bullet and seeing a Christian counselor. Though there were (and still are) those around me who judge me or don’t understand what I’m going through, I’ve realized that my mental health recovery is between me and God. He blessed the world with doctors, therapists, and safe spaces, and I believe He did so because He knew we could not face these battles alone.
Friend, if you’ve ever had unfair or untrue assumptions made about you because of your mental health, I want you to know that I am so sorry. I hear you. Stigmas around mental health are extremely damaging to how we think and isolate us from getting help. But by learning what they are, why they are so damaging, and how to combat them, we can create a new generation who supports one another in their struggles and eradicate these false assumptions and beliefs about mental health one step at a time.