Brooke Newton had been walking for two hours. Pacing the dark outskirts of campus had become a habit of hers when she felt stressed or, worse, numb.
That night, she felt numb. The usual stressors – the fear of failing the six hours of J-term classes she needed to get into nursing school, the pressure to make parents proud – they were dim, a faint echo in the back of her mind, drowned out by something louder. That night, she had only one thought. A question, actually.
When she opened the door of Rogers 77, her roommates were laughing in the living room, so she stopped and laughed with them. Then she went to her room and stuffed a bottle of pills in the pocket of her sweater. Telling her roommates she’d be back, she stepped out into the frosty January night.
She planned to go to the woods just outside of campus but realized that she had forgotten water. So, instead, she went to White Hall.
She walked up to the second floor, where the nursing classes are held. After looking in the nursing lounge, she stopped at a water fountain and took a few pills. Then she walked to the third floor. She took some more and kept walking.
As she passed the computer lab, she saw her life group leader, Ragan Pendley, and Pendley’s boyfriend, Maclin Williamson, studying. She stepped in and talked to them. Then she excused herself to go to the bathroom and took the rest of the pills. She rejoined Pendley and Williamson, but she could feel the pills taking effect. She was zoning out. Her mouth felt dry. She started thinking how unfair it would be to Pendley. She was the first person Newton saw at the life group fair. She was the first person Newton told when she was diagnosed with depression. And she had been supportive even through Newton’s sophomore year, regularly texting her to ask how she was doing and spending time with her.
Newton kept inching closer to Pendley, wanting to tell her but feeling embarrassed.
Finally, she said, “I did something. And I’m not sure what to do about it.”
Newton admitted that while she felt disconnected from God her freshman and sophomore year, she also wasn’t looking for him. At Union, she surrounded herself with strong Christian friends and considered that her church.
Suicidal thoughts began creeping in freshman year. She remembers pouring pills into her hand, staring at them, taunting God. “If you’re real,” she said out loud, “then you’ll stop me.” She wondered if she was crazy, talking to someone who didn’t even exist. But for some reason she couldn’t explain, she put the pills back in the bottle.
Newton was diagnosed with major depressive disorder the summer before her sophomore year. As she struggled to cope with her illness, she wrestled with the same questions that many Christians ask about mental illness: Is taking medication an act of faithlessness? Is mental illness a result of sin? Or is it a sin itself?
Research conducted by the American College Counseling Association in 2016 indicates that more college students are seeking counseling than ever before. Last academic year (August 1-July 31), more than 670 Union students sought help from the university counseling services, a slight increase from around 620 the previous year.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, one in five American adults experience mental illness at some point in their lives. One in 25 Americans live with a serious mental illness, such as schizophrenia, bipolar, or major depression.
Christians sometimes entrench themselves in one of two ideologies. One states that all aspects of mental illness are derived from spiritual foundation; consequently, the way to “cure” mental illness is to “have more faith” and repent of sin. The other ideology assumes that the Bible has nothing to say about mental illness, and, therefore, secular psychology fully explains what it means to be human.
In high school, Sarah Harris* knew she needed help. There were days when she couldn’t muster the energy to lift herself out of bed. Days when she turned in sloppily completed schoolwork because she couldn’t motivate herself. Sometimes, she forgot reality; she would walk into a store and suddenly wasn’t sure if she had just been attacked in the parking lot or if her mind was playing tricks on her.
Her parents, like many members of Harris’s church growing up, did not acknowledge mental illness as a real issue; they believed that her problems were imaginary and refused to let her see a therapist. So, Harris formed a plan: to come to Union and get counseling where it was free and her parents wouldn’t have to know.
A few weeks into her freshman year, she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder from sexual assault as a child, and trichotillomania, an impulse control disorder, which, for Harris, means that she compulsively pulls out her eyebrows when she’s stressed.
Growing up in a church that considered mental illness a sin, Harris was very familiar with the stigmas. After her diagnoses, she received a range of responses, from people advising her to “act happier” to being told she was demon-possessed. When she started taking medication, people expressed worry that she was a drug addict, her personality was nothing more than a result of her medication, taking medication demonstrated a lack of faith, or, more bluntly, taking medication was sinful.
“People have actually said these things to me. Well-meaning, Christian people who want what’s best for me, but just don’t understand,” she said. “And I’ve run into a lot more Christian people who are like, ‘Oh, I totally get it. You’re just having some spiritual hard times, and if you just fix your devotional life, then you’ll be able to fix yourself,’ or ‘Jesus will be able to fix you,’ or some variation on that. And that’s…that’s not how anything works,” she smiled, rubbing her forehead.
Nathan Finn, professor of theological studies and dean of the school of theology and missions at Union, said that many Christians fall into the trap of believing that God only speaks through “special revelation”: Scripture. Since the Bible never directly addresses mental health, at least in modern, psychological terms, some Christians assume that it isn’t a real issue. Instead, Finn emphasized a need to rely on “general revelation” or “common grace,” knowledge discovered through natural or scientific means, such as psychology or psychiatry.
“We need to understand that all truth is God’s truth…but not everything truthful that God has to say is found in Scripture,” he said.
Although there may be a spiritual component to mental illness, it doesn’t eliminate the scientific aspect. To lead a healthy life, mentally ill people need to be able to accept scientific and medical discoveries, including medication.
“I want to be clear and say that mental illness is not a sin,” Harris said. “But sometimes it directs me toward sin. And that’s my motivation for taking medications. It isn’t just to live a productive life, but because I want to live a God-honoring life. And that means taking care of myself so that I don’t fall into various sins that are easy to do when you’re not ‘all there.’”
However, acknowledging the scientific aspects of mental illness does not negate the role that the church can – and does – play in helping people cope with mental illness.
Many people, both those who struggle with mental illness and those who are close to someone with mental illness, attest that it can cause extreme feelings of isolation. In those moments, it is more important than ever to be able to rely on a community. The church can provide a much-needed community for people who struggle with mental illness.
Tamarin Huelin, head of counseling services at Union, said that one way to help people with mental illness is by being willing to help with practical, everyday chores, such as making meals, helping with childcare, and mowing the lawn, like they do if someone has a physical illness.
“Depression is a disease of loneliness in many ways for an individual,” Huelin said. “I think sometimes with mental illness some practical things can be very helpful, even asking, ‘How are you doing? How is it going?’…just being the church and not acting like this is something that nobody can talk about, nobody can care for. Understanding is part of what God wants us to do.”
That is the kind of understanding and encouraging church environment that Cheyanne Harber, a freshman double-major in history and theater, has found since coming to Union.
Diagnosed with general anxiety disorder, specifically, social anxiety, in 8th grade, Harber has been fairly open about her struggles. She told several members and leaders of her church about her diagnosis and said that they have been extremely accepting and supportive.
“I have at least four people from the church texting me every day, asking me how I am and do I need anything,” she said. “I’ve only been going to this church three weeks, but it feels like they’re a part of my family. They’re such an important part of my life.”
Harris’s church in Jackson hosts community nights where people can share their personal struggles and ask for prayer. Harris often uses that as an opportunity to talk about her mental illness and, by sharing her story, has found many church members and leaders willing to counsel her, listen to her, and sometimes admit that they don’t have all the answers.
Another thing – one of the most important things – that Christians, or anyone, can do for a mentally ill person is to research mental illness.
While their oscillating emotions or intense reactions to situations may confuse even them, people with mental illness still experience an innate human desire: to be understood. They don’t want to hear people to shallowly and dismissively assure them, “I know what you’re going through.” They want people to research to mental illness from reliable, scientific sources. Or even ask a mentally ill person about their struggles and what life is like for them.
“I would much rather you ask me a personal question than you go assuming something that you saw on a TV show or in the news,” said Harris, who gets frustrated by seeing the violent portrayal of mental illness on shows like “Criminal Minds.” “And if I say I don’t want to talk about it, I, meaning any mentally ill person that you know, am probably willing to direct you to resources that I found helpful when I got diagnosed.”
As she put it, it’s important for Christians to understand mental illness because “the best way you can love someone is to be educated.”
Finn said that a complete understanding of mental illness requires acknowledging both the spiritual and physical aspects of being human.
“The church just kind of punts from one ditch to the other,” Finn explained. “If the problem over here,” holding up his left hand to represent one ideology, “is that there’s no place for medication and counseling, the problem over here,” holding up the other hand, “is to assume that there’s a pill for everything. And for some people, sin and circumstances contribute to their struggles, but for very few people does that explain everything.”
Even though Harris called the reaction of Christians to her mental illness and her reception at church “a mixed bag,” she said that her faith has been invaluable in coping with her illness.
“I have something to stake my hope on,” Harris said. “I think that, statistically, the vast majority people with my set of conditions don’t have the same hope to stake everything on. And that changes everything.”
The day before Christmas Eve during her sophomore year, Newton’s sister invited her to go to church. Newton hadn’t been to church for three months, but she agreed to go. She watched the lighting of the advent candles, heard the Christmas carols carrying the message of hope and peace she had heard since childhood, and felt a pull to read Scripture.
After returning home, Newton took out her Bible. She sat with it until 3 a.m., just staring at the blue leather cover. Finally, she opened it, and immediately her eyes fell on the words of Psalm 143:11. “Lord, preserve my life.”
Less than a month later, she started researching ways to kill herself. Two weeks after that, she tried to commit suicide in White hall. After she told Pendley about the pills, she and Williamson forced her to go to the hospital, saving Newton’s life.
She was in the hospital for three days, then rehab for a week. When she returned to campus, she was angry at her roommates, upset that they now knew everything about her struggles. She felt embarrassed. Her family, friends, and boyfriend, who had not realized how deep her depression was, couldn’t trust her. She couldn’t trust herself. She had to rebuild her splintered relationships and learn how to cope with depression.
“If I hadn’t found this,” said Newton, now a senior, referring to Psalm 143, “even though I still struggled afterward…I think I just wouldn’t have been able to deal with it. And even though I did try to follow through with suicide, I had more faith in God than I did the first time I thought about it. And that seems so backwards…but I think my only comfort was the sooner it’s over, the sooner I can just rest with him. Because there’s peace in heaven.”
She wrote the passage on a neon yellow notecard and read it over and over in the coming months.
“Here I was, begging for mercy from someone, and I wasn’t even sure if he was really there or not, and I had believed in him my whole life,” she said. “I think that time when I had the pills in my hand and I didn’t take them…I think my faith was still there. I didn’t see it, but I don’t think I lost that faith.”
She looked at the passage, handwritten in blue pen. “It was very clear that my work’s not done here. My faith was as teeny tiny as a mustard seed, but if I can pass that mustard seed onto one person, then I’ve done my job. And for whatever reason, this whole story is my tiny mustard seed.”
*Name changed to protect student’s privacy.
To make an appointment with Union University counseling services, click here. Students struggling with anxiety can text “home” to 741-741. The National Suicide Prevention Hotline, available 24 hours every day, can be reached at 1-800-273-8255.
This article was originally ran in the Fall 2017 Cardinal & Cream magazine, which will be published online Nov. 20, 2017.