Breaking the Stigma of Mental Health in the Church

August 28, 2019 by Junius B Dotson

Starting out in my ministry, I remember sitting in a new-church-start training and hearing a pastor share about how he had gotten to a place of burnout and depression. I couldn’t imagine how anyone could ever experience depression amid all the exciting aspects of a new ministry. I remember saying to myself, naively, "That will never happen to me."

However, we don’t know what we don’t know. After my breakdown, I began to understand more about depression. I came to realize that there are some different types of depression: episodic, where something triggers a depressive episode; and a chemical imbalance, with which every day is a fight for joy.

I’ll never forget the language my counselor used as she prescribed a medication she said would “take the weight off my shoulders” so I could do the internal work I needed to do. It wasn’t going to be immediate, and there was no quick fix. This wasn’t a cure or a magic pill, but it would give me the space to work on me and lift the weight long enough for me to do the work I needed to do in order to be healthy and whole. I had never seen a therapist before, but this image of carrying a heavy weight resonated deeply with me. I had read the scriptures where Jesus says his burden is light, but the burden I carried around was anything but light. My counselor and I began to talk about creating some kind of balance in my work life. I didn’t know what that meant. My whole life was ministry, and that was all I knew. It was time for me to examine how I was living my life.  

Now I want to say a word about medication. In the church, we need work on removing the stigma of medications for emotional and mental illness. Sometimes in order to climb out of the darkness, we need help—we need the weight off our shoulders so we can begin the climb. I needed help, something beyond just “Pray harder” or “Pray longer.” Sometimes churches tend to super-spiritualize things to a point where we create a taboo around mental health. This prevents many of us from publicly sharing where we are because of the stigma associated with depression and antidepressants. Don’t get me wrong, I firmly believe in the power of prayer. I believe that when a person has an illness, we absolutely pray, but there are times when illness requires medicine. I believe that God heals through doctors and medicine and surgeries, but healing comes from God. We get confused when we think we can’t take a prescription because it would mean we don’t trust God enough. I believe in a holistic salvation. What I mean by this is that God heals through various means. God doesn’t just save us for heaven in the future. God saves our hearts, souls, and bodies in the here and now. God cares about our whole being, just as we are. I find it so liberating to praise God for a pill that will lift the weight off my shoulders so that God can do the work God needs to do in my soul. 

As I began to journey through my depression, I was forced to do things differently. I had to have difficult conversations with my church leaders, sharing with them where I was emotionally and spiritually. I had to admit I was struggling. I had to be vulnerable and say, “I’ve hit a wall that is affecting my ability to lead effectively.” When they might have been disappointed in me or discouraged by their leader’s weaknesses, instead, my church leaders said, “Don’t worry about it, we’ve got you.” That was one of the first moments of vulnerability in my ministry when I had to admit where I was emotionally and spiritually. I had to publicly admit that I was human, and I will never forget the grace that met me in that space.

Rev. Junius B. Dotson is the general secretary (CEO) of Discipleship Ministries, an international agency of the United Methodist Church.

Learn more about Soul Reset: Breakdown, Breakthrough, and the Journey to Wholeness at and experience practical, biblical guidance for wholistic healing through Jesus.

This article is adapted from Soul Reset: Breakdown, Breakthrough, and the Journey to Wholeness by Junius B. Dotson. Copyright © 2019 by the author. Used with permission of Upper Room Books.

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