Dear reader, this article will discuss subjects of mental health including suicide.
They had plans. Things looked hopeful. That weekend, they were going to receive a prestigious honor. Later that month, they were going to start their final tour. But the Saturday before being inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, Naomi Judd, one half of the superstar duo the Judds, died. Her daughters, Ashley and Wynonna Judd, revealed that her death was the result of suicide.
He had a bright future. His social media accounts were full of posts beaming about how proud he was of his famous mother. They were extremely close and he was well-loved. And he was talented in his own right as a DJ. Yet only days after his 26th birthday, Regina King’s only child, Ian Alexander Jr., died by suicide.
Naomi was a 76-year-old white woman. Ian was a 26-year-old Black man. They both had loving families. They had things they were looking forward to. Yet mental health issues overwhelmed them both. These are not concerns bound by race, age, or gender. The idea that mental illness can’t touch our lives because of who we are is a myth. And it’s one that our church continues to perpetuate.
Many still believe that just being Christian insulates us from psychological disorders. We still treat mental health as a subject of willpower as opposed to another component of healthcare in general. For a denomination that has such a strong emphasis on health, we do a poor job highlighting the importance of psychological and emotional health. When it comes to these topics, many of our conversations amount to a prescription of prayer and that’s it. Often people actively dissuade others from doing anything further. But we would never discourage someone from going to a cardiologist for heart problems or a dentist for a toothache. In those cases, we have no difficulty following the practices laid out in James—pray AND do something about it. Taking action does not negate faith but is a demonstration of faith:
Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.” Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. (James 2:15–18)
Just like you can be a person of faith and still wear glasses, you can be a person of faith and still require intervention for a psychological condition. How come we readily accept treatment for our eyes but not for our brains—which is a much more vital organ? We lull ourselves into a false sense of security that Christianity makes us invincible to health problems only when it comes to the most crucial part of the body. Our reasoning defies logic.
Neither status as a prominent person in the family, respected member of the community, popular influencer on social media, successful achiever at school or work, nor faithful believer in Christ guarantees a life free of sickness or pain. And that is true regardless of the part of the body from which that pain arises, including the brain. Can we acknowledge the reality that our identity does not shield us from these potential problems?
My leg hurts. True story! Can you believe it? But I’m a Christian. I pray. I read the Bible. I’m doing well professionally. I have a loving family and a great circle of friends. Yet my leg still hurts. So, I have an upcoming appointment with an orthopedist. I tried to treat it myself. I figured I could manage it on my own. I thought I could merely continue with my life and the pain would subside. But it made it hard to sleep. I believed that I shouldn’t have these problems at my age; if I just ignored it, it would go away. I found that this one pain began to affect other areas of my life too. The way I walked and moved through the world was impacted by trying to accommodate this one issue—and then I wound up causing another issue (walking gingerly on my leg began to cause pain in my foot). My attempts at self-treatment actually made it worse. No one thinks less of me for admitting that I have an appointment to seek treatment. And while I hope people will pray for me, I will still go to a professional to see what can be done. As I write this all down, it seems obvious that I should have sought help sooner. All the time spent struggling alone seems unnecessary. No doubt some readers think it’s silly that I haven’t already gone to the doctor by now. But I wonder if everything I said about my leg was about my mind instead, would people’s attitudes be different? When will we get to the point where we can be as candid about discussing issues of the brain as I am able to be about my leg, without fear of stigma? How long will we perpetuate the myth that certain groups and certain people can’t be touched by psychological disorders? May is Mental Health Awareness Month in the US. I wonder how many churches here are embracing this time as an opportunity to highlight this important topic. Can our churches be as committed to promoting mental health as we are about physical health? I hope so.
If you or a loved one need resources for mental health, including crisis intervention for potential suicide, contact the corresponding hotline in your country. Some are listed here: https://www.helpguide.org/find-help.htm and here: https://checkpointorg.com/global/
Courtney Ray, MDiv, PhD, is an ordained minister of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and President of the Society for Black Neuropsychology.
Previous Spectrum columns by Courtney Ray can be found by clicking here.
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