Last week, I listed 10 Ways Mental Illness Is Stigmatized in Our Culture. And as I mentioned in an earlier post, I devoted an entire chapter of Troubled Minds to discussion of stigma. This week, I’ll list 10 ways many churches are guilty of reinforcing that stigma, adding to the sense of shame people feel in our culture at large. Our misunderstandings and lack of compassion discourage people from getting the treatment they need.
1. Sending the message, intentional or not, that Christians don’t have serious problems–some churches embrace this idea as part of their core teaching; others suggest it without meaning to.
2. Perpetuating misunderstanding and mistrust of psychology–many people have outdated notions of what psychology is and believe it leads people away from God because it’s based in science rather than purely in biblical teaching; so is every other field of medicine, but that doesn’t stop us from seeking treatment for cancer or a ruptured appendix.
3. Focusing on numbers and branding–as we try to attract more people and build a brand as the coolest church in town, we naturally look for the beautiful and popular, and discourage people with problems, who might not fit in and might ask us to take our ministry deeper instead of broader.
4. Emphasizing polite behavior and exaggerated piety–people who function well in most contexts might have more trouble at church if it’s an environment that expects people to conform to rigid standards of behavior; this emphasizes the sense that people with problems don’t belong in the church.
5. Referring and forgetting–while it’s appropriate for churches to refer people to mental health professionals, abandoning them to the system sends the message that the church has nothing to offer people in times of real darkness.
6. Staying silent–when we fail to address mental illness as reality, we reinforce loneliness and marginalization and, again, send the message that the church–and therefore God–has no help or hope to offer.
7. Assuming all mental illness is caused by demons–this faulty belief undermines medical treatment and marginalizes people who need help.
8. Suggesting mental illness is God’s punishment–this idea directly contradicts Jesus’ teaching and paints God as a cruel and capricious master who plays favorites.
9. Claiming mental illness is evidence of weak faith or flagrant sin–we blame people for their suffering, suggest that they are more sinful than the rest of us, and withhold
the grace and hope Christ gives freely.
10. Proposing purely spiritual solutions to medical problems–we discourage people from seeking medical help and instead suggest that religious activity is the solution–burdening people rather than sending them to Jesus, whose yoke is easy to bear and whose burden is light.
Do you recognize your church–or yourself–on this list? The good news is, we can change our attitudes toward mental illness. Our nation is engaged in a redemptive discussion about mental health and how to respond to problems effectively and compassionately. Let’s make sure the church is not only in this conversation, but leading the way, in keeping with our mission in this life.
© 2013 Amy Simpson.