Faith has a Powerful Message for Mental Health Struggles

By: Amy Cheng

Understanding that we are children of God, and the hope that brings us, can help us better manage and tackle mental health, a Sydney pastor has said.

Chris Cipollone, who is also an author and speaker specialising in mental health, would like people to see that faith has something powerful to say in the conversation about mental health.

“Our faith is a very, very, important part of the overall mental health picture of society and we shouldn’t be afraid to walk into that and ask ‘what does that look like?’” he said in an interview.

Identity as God’s Children

In 2014, Mr Cipollone was admitted to a psychiatric hospital.

“I was just about to finish three years of theological training, I had a ministry job on the table, I was a husband and father too at that time,” he said.

“And, so, the social construction for me was… I should be doing dot dot dot, this is what the trajectory should look like for me.”

His experience and struggles with depression and anxiety led him to writing a book, Down Not Out: Depression, Anxiety and the Difference Jesus Makes, exploring how an identity in Christ impacts thoughts, feelings and attitudes about mental health.

“I think, in terms of what is a gospel identity, by my definition, in my humble opinion, it’s that we live in light of the gospel, we live in light of the work of Christ… that ultimately means we are beloved children.”

This truth was a comfort to him when he was in hospital.

“Because of that identity as a child of God, I can go ‘you know what, I’m struggling, I am not able to live up to the expectation of others and that’s OK because God loves me as His child.”

Another Source of Power

Although society often believes that loving ourselves is a way to tackle mental health problems, Mr Cipollone believes this way is better.

“I think it’s better because it draws on another source of power beyond ourselves,” he said.

“If I’m only drawing on my own self, I think we struggle with that even when we’re functioning really well, let alone when we’re struggling.”

“In our (Christian) worldview (or philosophy of life and the world), we ultimately believe we can do it, but it’s in God’s strength that we can do it. And if I’m only drawing on my own self, I think we struggle with that even when we’re functioning really well, let alone when we’re struggling.

“So, it means that we can ask God for His power, His Spirit, rather than just drawing on our own strength and our own optimistic words.”

Tuning in to Hope

Woman sitting and thinking
Photo by kevin turcios on Unsplash

Mr Cipollone said that hope is key when someone is suffering.

“If you haven’t lived with depression, I think hopelessness is the best synonym I can use to describe it; it’s just an absence of light, not just today but into the future,” he said.

He explained that for many, hope needs to come from an external source, and refers to Romans 5:3-5 in the Bible: “Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us”.

“I love that idea that we’re putting our hope in something that is not going to put us to shame, it’s not going to come up short,” Mr Cipollone said.

“But Paul (the author of Romans) challenges the worldview in saying, the way to get to that point of having a hope that does not put you to shame is you have to go through suffering.

“I think the reason it’s a hope that doesn’t put us to shame is, ultimately, it’s a hope that will find its full expression in eternity, but it also is a hope for today.”

Adding Faith to the Conversation

For people struggling with mental health problems, Mr Cipollone believes the Romans passage can also be a comfort.

“It presents a significant opportunity to mature in our relationship with God… it shouldn’t shock us when we go through times of struggle, both because the Bible leaves room for it,” he said.

“And on a broader level, it actually confirms our worldview that this life is not perfect and so stuff is going to happen.

“At the same time, don’t be stoic about it, like you don’t have to pretend like it’s all OK.”

For people wanting to help others through mental health problems, Mr Cipollone said it’s helpful to think about what it looks like to love their neighbour.

“What you can do is be there for somebody.”

“That’s a tricky one in that it’s an abstract teaching, in a way it’s all encompassing, but I think that is the paradigm to start with.

“Recognise what you can do and recognise what you can’t do – what you can do is be there for somebody.

“Whatever it is that you were doing before with someone, keep offering that presence and that warmth to them because when you are depressed and anxious, it’s very hard to love yourself.

“And that’s not what a psychologist or a doctor is being asked to do, so you have a really important role to play.”

How Churches are Addressing Mental Health

Mr Cipollone is pleased to see that more and more churches are talking about mental health.

“I think churches are hungry for it and I think churches are well placed to be a very, very, important part of the picture.”

However, he believes that more can be done and other people in the church can also help out.

“We need to get really dirty with people and suffer with them; it’s a messy, long-term journey… mental illness, for the most part, is a chronic illness, it’s not an acute illness.

“What that means is that we need to be realistic about our timeframes of people’s recovery… and by becoming dirty with people, what I mean is embrace the discomfort of mental illness, challenge people where they need to be challenged.”

The best way to do that is to ask them to have a conversation with their GP and even offer to go with them, he said.

“From an Australian government perspective, a GP is really the strategic gateway to all of the mental health resources at our disposal.”

“We need to be realistic about our timeframes of people’s recovery… and by becoming dirty with people, what I mean is embrace the discomfort of mental illness,” – Chris Cipollone, Sydney pastor

Mr Cipollone would also like to encourage churches to use different avenues and mediums to talk about mental health, rather than just outsourcing it.

“When a pastor decides to make an announcement about a mental health event at a conference, that’s great,” he said.

“When they preach a sermon on it, implicitly within that, there’s a teaching within that teaching of going ‘oh this matters in this place’.

“Or if you have a song in your repertoire that laments, there’s an implicit message there that this matters, this has something to say.”

Article supplied with thanks to Hope Media.

Feature image: Photo by Tim Marshall on Unsplash