How Churches Can Help Families Affected by Mental Illness

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:

  • Oppose stigma–Attitudes toward mental illness won’t change until healthy people discuss it openly and without shame. Mention it in sermons, discuss it in Bible studies, and publicly pray for those affected (without violating the privacy of specific individuals). Refuse to tolerate jokes or cruel comments about people with mental illness. Treat it as you do other illnesses, all of which stem from our wretched condition as sinners in rebellion against God.
  • Form a network–Create a list of counselors, support groups, and behavioral health hospitals. Start with professionals who belong to your congregation, Christian counselors, and the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Use this list to help families find help.
  • Get educated–Read about the mental health care system. Walk through it with someone in your congregation. Ask questions and understand what they experience. Then you’ll be ready to help someone else through it.
  • Do what you always do–Families in mental-health crisis need the same care as other struggling people: hospital visits, meals, rides, and offers to help.
  • Help with expenses–Assist with the cost of medications or hospitalizations, or help financially if a family member has missed work or lost a job.

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.

  1. Carissa says:

    Yes, Yes, Yes! Thank you Amy for such a wonderful post. Just like someone disabled from an accident, families with mental illness are also disabled, and need all of that wonderful love and care like you mentioned. I especially appreciate that you mentioned taking meals, rides, visits, and helping with financial costs. These are things I see the church do really well with for other needs, but rarely with mental illness.

  2. Your post is very much appreciated and needed. We truly have a mental Illness situation in this world and far greater than estimated. Your post was very clear and concise, we truly need to understand the problems facing our society and then make commitment to address and attack them. Thank you very much for your encouragement and bravery to talk about your family experience, please fell free to call and or facebook me with any questions or concerns, Pastor Robert R. Duvenary Sr. Pastor of the Church of God in Michigan.

  3. Vicki Hornung Reyes says:

    Thank you, Amy, for your recent article in “Christianity Today.” It resonated with me as my mother was also schizophrenic. I , too, am passionate about helping the Church learn to minister and work with ACMIs. I am anxious to read your book! I have begun research on “Adult Children of the Mentally Ill in Missions,” highlighting the strengths and struggles of ACMI’s on the mission field as well as what missions’ leaders and member care personnel need to know. God bless you!

  4. Valerie says:

    Thank you so much for this post, and the many others you have written concerning mental illness and the church. As the mother of a child with bipolar disorder, and the wife of a man who suffers from mental illness, I can attest to the fact that many churches aren’t equipped to handle mental illness. Most don’t even want to try. I cannot tell you the number of times my husband or my daughter have been hurt by fellow Christians. It has been a serious impediment in the spiritual and emotional growth of both of them. It’s just so nice to see someone taking that subject on, it gives me hope. Sometimes I’m tired of advocating for my family members to a body of people who should accept us as we are…

© 2013 Amy Simpson.