The Church of Christ and Mental Health

Last night a friend and I were talking on the phone, comparing notes about the various physical problems we're facing as we skid into middle age. As much as my body is creaking under the weight of the years, in some ways, I've never felt better. In particular, I almost never get the horrible stress headaches that plagued me when I was younger. I used to have one almost every week. Funnily enough, they stopped around the time that I made my decision to leave the COC, and I don't think it was a coincidence. Being in that church and having to put up a front all the time really took a toll on me, and I often wonder how much longer I could have held out without cracking under the strain.

As with much of what I write on this blog, I have no scientific data to offer--only my observations and personal experiences--but I can confidently say that a good quarter to a third of the women in the COC are taking antidepressants, assuming that the churches I attended were representative samples. I can't offer any insights into whether the men are also taking such drugs because none of them ever confided in me (or gossiped about each other to me, depending on the case). It's really no surprise that so many women in the church are taking those drugs. They are under tremendous pressure to be perfect Christian wives and mothers, to create perfect homes and serve perfect meals and raise perfect children, all under the threat of hellfire and damnation if they fail. There is the added burden of not being allowed to make decisions about their own lives, since they are supposed to obey their husbands unquestioningly. And nowadays, even though the ideal is that they will all be housewives, most of them have to work because their husbands' incomes don't pay all the bills. That's a huge burden to bear, and it's no wonder that many of them simply can't handle it without help.

Compounding the problem is the fact that the COC very much looks down on psychiatric medicine and counseling. They believe that the solution to every problem, even mental illness, is to pray and read the Bible more. I have had this argument with my dad on multiple occasions. He cannot wrap his mind around the fact that the brain is an organ like any other and that sometimes people need to take medication to treat it. My argument is always, "You wouldn't tell a diabetic person to stop taking their insulin and just pray more would you? So why do you think someone who is bipolar or schizophrenic can stop taking medication and just pray it away?" Thus, anyone in the COC who does seek help for depression and other mental health issues risks ridicule and shaming if anyone finds out. I also know of a case where a woman was threatened with being kicked out of the church for going to a secular counselor to deal with her depression. She was told that only a COC preacher should be her counselor, despite the fact that they have absolutely no mental health training.

The root of the problem is that the COC doesn't allow people to be normal, flawed, messy humans. We're supposed to be perfect (or at least maintain a perfect facade) and are shamed and ridiculed if we show weakness or ask for help. So everyone in that church lives in isolation, afraid to be honest about who they really are, growing more and more depressed and unhappy with each passing year, fearing that they are the only ones who feel that way, and feeling guilty about it because they can't just "snap out of it" and live up to those impossible ideals like everyone else. Leaving that church saved my sanity in so many ways, but perhaps the most important benefit was being able to admit that I'm not perfect, I don't have all the answers, I am sad and depressed sometimes, and that's OK because it's part of the human condition. I'm so much happier now, and it still surprises me how much better my life is. I never imagined it could be this good.

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