How Churches Can Help People with Mental Illness

This week, Adrian Warnock continues hosting a widespread conversation about mental health and faith on his Patheos blog. Earlier this month, I answered a question he posed: How has your religious community historically seen mental illness? And how does your faith, today, shape the way you see mental illness?

His new question is this: How do you think that faith communities and society as a whole can better respond to mental illness?

Here’s my response, regarding how churches can help:

“If one group can serve a thousand people, how many people can a thousand groups serve?” This vision-casting question came from Bob Mills, one of the people I wrote about in Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission. Bob’s church is First Presbyterian in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, one of four churches I profiled, which have intentional ministries to people affected by mental illness. These churches serve as inspiration and examples of what other churches, and other faith communities, can do.

Bob is lead facilitator of the Bipolar Support Group ministry at First Presbyterian, a group that started in 2001 and has ministered to nearly 1,500 people since then. His interest in starting and perpetuating this ministry grew from his own experience with bipolar disorder and the spiritual crisis that came with it. With support from his pastoral staff, he has channeled his experience into a thriving ministry to help others on the same journey.

As I shared in Troubled Minds, Bob said he wants other churches to “understand that this is the simplest and cheapest of all ministries, because all it takes is broken people who are willing to open up to God and allow him to work through them to heal them and then help them then become healers. It costs the church nothing other than whatever power it takes for us to turn on lights for an extra three hours. And what you get in exchange for that is truly amazing.”

All four of the ministries I profiled were driven by people equally passionate about ministry to individuals and families affected by mental illness. All of them have seen their ministries provide tremendous hope, healing, and life-saving friendship.

But not every church can do what these churches have done. Some don’t feel they have the resources to start another ministry or someone willing to lead it. Some feel too stretched by the ministries they already have. Some simply have a long way to go in overcoming stigma and their visceral fear of mental illness, and the thought of a ministry specifically to reach people with such illness sounds intimidating.

Fortunately, there are many simpler–yet still powerful–things we can do. Here are a few:

  • Address fear–So many of our initial reactions to people with mental illness are based in fear, most of it irrational. People who behave differently than we do aren’t necessarily dangerous. Decide whether people present a true threat to themselves or someone else. If yes, call the police. If not, try to lay your fears aside and see people for who they are–with the same needs and longings as the rest of us.
  • Get educated–Misconceptions about mental illness abound, yet accurate information is so easy to find. Everyone should seek a basic understanding of mental illness and share information with others in the church or community. We can offer a more compassionate and supportive response to someone with depression, for example, when we understand that depression is a true illness rather than simple stubbornness, laziness, or self-pity.
  • Check your theology–Revisit orthodox Christian views on suffering and how it relates to mental illness. Recognize how mental illness fits within Christian teaching on the effects of original sin, the presence of sickness in our world, God’s unconditional love, redemption in this life, and complete healing in the next. We don’t need to (and can’t) have all the answers, but we must face these questions and rest in God’s truth, or our own uncertainty will leave drowning people without a lifeline.
  • Talk about it–Discuss mental illness in sermons, studies, and prayer groups. Acknowledge that it’s very common to face mental-health challenges–for people of faith as for others. Speak redemptively and hopefully (yet realistically) about life with mental illness. Seek to make your faith community a safe place to admit to mental health problems.
  • Welcome needs–Publicly invite people to come to the church for help. Before doing so, make sure you’re ready and willing to help. And realize that walking alongside someone with mental illness may mean traveling down a long road. Such illness rarely has a quick fix or a sudden healing, and recurring episodes may try your patience.
  • Offer help–Consider the ways your church already meets the needs of people affected by illness, injury, or other crises. Offer the same kinds of practical help: meals, rides, financial assistance, hospital visits, phone calls to check up on them. Because of shame and stigma, many people with mental illness typically don’t receive this kind of help.
  • Grant dignity–Stigma and fear often make us avoid people who exhibit symptoms of mental illness. This only reinforces their sense of shame and separation from the rest of society and the friendships they need. We can make eye contact, smile, and say hello. Perhaps even extend friendship.

Is there more we can do? Yes! Much more–I devoted an entire chapter of Troubled Minds to this topic. But these simple actions make for a great starting point. We need not feel paralyzed by the possibilities or overwhelmed by the idea that supporting mental health is purely a job for professionals. As I wrote in Troubled Minds, “The church can make a difference. The darkness is deep enough that even a tiny light can help someone find the way out.”

Something is way better than nothing–and we can all do something.


© 2013 Amy Simpson.