In celebration of the launch of my new book, Troubled Minds, I decided to post the article that started it all. This was published in Leadership Journal two years ago, and it was the first time I ever wrote about mental illness and my family’s experience. This project started a life-changing journey for me, and I hope it blesses you as you read it–as it blessed me as I wrote it.
Here’s Part 3 (the final installment) . . .
So as a church leader, if you want to help your church be more faithful and effective in ministering to those with mental illness, and overcoming its related stigmas, what do you do? How can churches help, besides refer people to the professionals?
Here are some ideas.
De-stigmatize. Make a determined and intentional effort to rid your church of stigma and shame associated with mental illness. Talk about it. Acknowledge the struggles of people you’ve known, and your own struggle if applicable. Contact some local organizations to see how churches can better support the mentally ill. And if necessary, repent privately or even publicly for the way your church has handled mental illness.
Talk about mental illness. When was the last time you mentioned mental illness in a sermon or class? Have you discussed the tough theological questions that mental illness can raise? Established your church as a community of imperfect people growing in relationship with a God who is not confused or threatened by our imperfection? Or does your church inadvertently send the message that it’s a place only for the mentally healthy? Make your church a relevant, accepting place for those who struggle with their mental health by talking openly about it. One note of caution: no “crazy” or “psycho” jokes. Making light of mental illness is deeply hurtful and alienating and serves to reinforce the stigma and shame associated with mental illness.
Encourage relationships. When I asked my parents what the church has done right in ministering to them, they both focused on the open and genuine relationships they have had with some people in the church. Small groups have been lifelines for them, especially when they have been able to talk openly about their struggles, mention their therapeutic work, and relate their experiences to the Bible. They also mentioned how helpful it is when curious people ask questions, learning about their experiences and seeking common ground. Questions like what it’s like to be on medication or attend group therapy might seem intrusive, but for my mom, they open the door to genuine conversation with people and provide relief from feelings of isolation. Because these are her everyday experiences, they are easy for her to talk about if someone shows interest.
You don’t have to be the only one ministering to the mentally ill in your congregation. My parents’ small groups and church friends have prayed for and with them, visited Mom when she was hospitalized, taken Dad out for lunch after church when Mom was away from home, and shared their own struggles. Genuine and mutual relationships are irreplaceable. Encourage the ministry of genuine relationships in your church so that when mental healthy struggles and crises arise, those who are suffering have friends to walk through the suffering with them.
Ask what you can do to help. Pretty simple stuff, even cliche, but this takes courage. A pastor who asks this question must be willing to actually help if the individual or family expresses a specific need. People in crisis don’t always know what they need, but sometimes they do and they feel as if no one is available or willing. Their needs may not be any different from others in crisis. If you make yourself available to help–organize meal delivery, visit someone in a psychiatric hospital, find a ride to a medical appointment, provide child care, get the kids to school–you may be able to help in some very practical ways.
You may not be a mental health professional, but that doesn’t mean you can’t help. Be especially attentive to the people who are caring for/living with a mentally ill person. They may be better able to communicate what’s really going on and what they need, and like anyone who loves and cares for the suffering, they are suffering themselves.
Be present. This sounds simple, and the “ministry of presence” might be cliche, but it’s powerful. When an individual is struggling with mental illness, and when the person’s family is in crisis, the earth can feel as if it has come loose from its proper orbit. People need something stable to help them keep their bearings, and they may need you to help them keep their faith. A pastor who refuses to abandon a family in crisis may be a powerful symbol of the truth that God has not abandoned them either. Make yourself obviously and consistently available, even if it’s not clear what else you can do to help.
Radiate acceptance. Refuse to reject the person or family in crisis. Be the person who represents Christ’s tenacious and bold love, refusing to be driven away by what you don’t understand. Don’t leave just because you can’t answer all the questions. Don’t wash your hands of a family because you’ve given them a referral to a mental health professional. Like others in crisis, people affected by mental illness need to know that you care. Pretending their crisis doesn’t exist is not a way to show care. Try to treat them as you would a person who suffers from arthritis or diabetes. Ask questions: Are you managing your illness? caring for yourself? Is the family healthy? caring for itself? A diagnosis or hospitalization doesn’t change who a person is; it just changes your understanding of what someone needs.
If it’s difficult for you to show acceptance for someone who thinks and behaves in ways you don’t understand, prayerfully confront your fears and prejudices, examine where they come from, ask God to purge you of misconceptions and hatred and replace them with the kind of love he has for the suffering. Educate yourself on mental illness in general, and perhaps a specific illness so you can better understand the struggle and behavior of the person under your spiritual care.
Draw boundaries and stick to them. Just because someone is mentally ill, does not mean you need to suspend standards of morality, biblical theology, or respectful behavior in your church community. Overlooking inappropriate behavior or beliefs is destructive to your congregation, and it does no favors for people with mental illness. Regardless of how they respond to social expectations, people with mental illness do need structure and boundaries to grow in independence, understanding, and management of their illness. They need healthy people around them to give them objective feedback and an example of mental health. Help them pursue and maintain health by insisting on a healthy community around them. Communicate agreed-upon expectations openly and lovingly, and hold to them consistently.
Know when you are in over your head. Sometimes you need to call in a professional to either handle an immediate crisis or provide long-term care. If you suspect a person in your congregation is struggling with mental illness, refer him or her to a professional counselor or psychiatrist. Compile and keep a list of trusted professionals and their specialties, and make sure you’re covering a wide range of specialties on this list, from depression to eating disorders to bipolar and schizophrenia so that you’ll have a relevant referral at your fingertips when someone in your church needs it.
This one is an absolute no-brainer: If someone in your church is in danger or is endangering another person, always call 911. This is not a situation for you or your congregation to handle; it’s a situation for the police. Once everyone is safe, you can move to referrals and pastoral care as appropriate.
As I mentioned earlier, referring someone to a mental health professional does not mean your job is done. Please remember the critical role you play in the lives of the people in your congregation, as representatives of God’s kingdom. Continue to minister to people who are in professional care. You might even extend an offer to talk with the counselor or psychiatrist to discuss ways your church can help support the person’s health. If he or she gives consent, your collaboration with mental health professionals would be an amazing demonstration of acceptance and love.
Get help if you’re struggling. If you or a member of your family is struggling with your mental health, seek professional help. You cannot effectively minister to a congregation without addressing your own needs. And your first ministry is to the family God has entrusted to your care. Overcome your own fears and prejudices; your suffering or your family member’s suffering is not cause for shame. Seek answers to your theological questions. Facing a mental illness doesn’t have to destroy your faith. On the contrary, it’s more evidence of biblical truth: our fallen world and the creation that groans under the weight of our sin.
I don’t know exactly where we get all our ideas about people with mental illness or why we tend to simultaneously laugh at them and believe they’re all dangerous criminals. I don’t know why we believe mental illness is so much rarer than it is, or why we have such a hard time accepting the presence of psychosis in a world pervasively poisoned by sin. I do know, though, that mental illness gets a bad rap. And the people who love and care for those with mental illness often feel a shame they can’t explain and a terrible burden to keep secret what they most need to share. This doesn’t stop at the doors of the church.
I’ll be among the first to acknowledge that what an illness like schizophrenia does to a person is not pretty. It’s an ugly and heartbreaking reality, and my mother’s illness has presented the single greatest test to my personal faith. So I’m not trying to minimize the confusion and revulsion we can feel when dealing with someone whose brain is giving them a skewed picture of reality. But like any suffering person, people with mental illness should find solace and acceptance in the church.
By God’s grace (and I’m not using that term flippantly) and for his glory, my siblings and I are all healthy, productive, and living in relationship with Christ. Mom is currently doing well, managing her illness and benefiting from the advances made in the latest generation of anti-psychotic drugs. I’m proud of her determination to enjoy life and pursue health despite her struggles. I’m also proud of her enduring commitment to Christ. And Dad continues to live as a paragon of faithfulness, both to his God and to the woman he committed himself to nearly 50 years ago. I’ve been inspired by his passionate pursuit of ministry in Jesus’ name, whether in or out of the pulpit. God’s redemptive work has used our family’s pain to keep my dad’s heart soft and ready to serve, and God uses him in a loving ministry toward people who cross his path.
May God’s same redemptive work cause the struggles of people in your church to blossom into loving ministry toward the suffering.
© 2013 Amy Simpson.