I was 14 when my mother suffered her first debilitating psychotic break. She had exhibited symptoms of mental illness for a long time, but until that day, we didn’t know the nature or magnitude of her trouble. And it was trouble–schizophrenia didn’t bother to come knocking; it kicked in the door and settled in like an unexpected, unwelcome, and violent guest who refused to leave.
My family tried our best to understand and adapt to what had happened to Mom, but we were in over our heads. Her illness advanced and retreated, always catching us off guard with some new expression of symptoms. We repeatedly welcomed her back from delusion or from the hospital, only to lose her again. We were caring for the caregiver, worrying over what we couldn’t understand, getting lost in the mental-health care maze, and feeling desperate to be normal. We needed help, but we didn’t know where to find it. On top of all that, the last things we needed were shame and rejection–but they were exactly what we got.
A Terrible Shame
Shame was implied; mental illness is terribly stigmatized in our society, and suffering people understand they are supposed to keep silent. This stigma is not limited to people with mental illness; it extends to their families, who are tainted by association. So we learned not to talk about what was happening at home.
Rejection came when those who did know what was happening kept their distance. Friends who could have helped by offering a simple word of acceptance instead ignored our desperation and sometimes avoided eye contact. The church, which should have offered us hope, was silent and mostly uninvolved. We felt utterly alone.
But we were not alone. Far from it. Each year, slightly more than 25 percent of the adults in the U.S. suffer from a diagnosable mental illness. That translates to almost 12 million people. Among children, according to the U.S. Surgeon General, every year an estimated 20 percent are at least mildly impaired by some type of diagnosable mental illness. About 5 to 9 percent of children ages 9 to 17 have “serious emotional disturbance.” That’s between 3 and 7 million children in serious trouble–and millions of families in crisis.
Mental illness ranges from depression and anxiety disorders to bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and everything in between. All, no matter their severity, create crises for the families of ill people. With a dysfunctional mental-health care system and privacy laws that often separate loved ones from information they desperately need, many families are left out in the cold even while those with illness are receiving care. Where do they go? Often to churches, the first places many people go for help of all kinds.
How to Help
Churches can’t afford to ignore mental illness and the suffering it causes. But they don’t always know how to help. And when they focus effort on helping the person with an illness, they sometimes overlook the person’s family. But churches don’t have to feel lost. Here are some ways you can make a difference for families affected by mental illness:
The most powerful help you can offer is your presence. Through God’s grace, refuse to be fearful or put off by families in crisis. Assure them of God’s love, and that he has not abandoned them (Romans 8:35-38). And please be patient with ongoing struggle. Most mental illness is treatable and manageable but rarely cured. Families may need your help for a long time. Remember, because you are a representative of Christ and his church, your loving support will speak volumes about who God is and how much he loves all of us.
© 2013 Amy Simpson.