Every year, 1 in 20 people in the United States suffer from serious mental illness. This can include such conditions as serious depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia, among others. So why do we not hear about it? Why do you know about the brother or sister at church who has heart disease or is going for cancer treatments? Why is it the only time you hear about mental illness is when a celebrity has committed suicide or there has been a mass shooting? It is because even today, most mental illnesses have a negative stigma attached to them. Even in the church, we just don’t talk about it. People suffer in silence. They may feel abandoned by God and their church family. They may blame their “condition” on some spiritual failing such as not having enough faith. They agonize alone without their church family to offer them any comfort or support. The time has come for the church to recognize and admit that mental illness is within the body of Christ and minister accordingly.
Mental illnesses are medical and psychological disorders or diseases. They may need to be under the care of licensed medical professionals which might include counselors and psychiatrists. Mental illnesses can affect all people in all walks of life including ministers and minister’s wives. It can take its toll on elders, deacons, medical professionals and their families. It is not a punishment from God. It is not just a feeling that will go away with more prayer or Bible study. It does not mean that one is lacking faith or trust in God. It does not mean that one is demon possessed. It is a disease such as heart disease, cancer, or diabetes.
Mental illness is treated with lifestyle changes, counseling, and medications. There is typically no “cure.” Some conditions may be caused by specific situations such as the death of a loved one, divorce, a traumatic event that leads to PTSD, etc. and may eventually resolve on its own or a person may learn to control it through counseling using self-talk, meditation, deep-breathing techniques, etc. Some conditions or diseases may require life-long medications to stabilize moods and control psychotic outbursts. Medications to keep the hallucinations and the voices at bay that are telling you to jump out a second story window. Medications to keep one from falling into a deep, dark depression and wanting to harm themselves with cutting or suicide. Medications to keep the anger in check to keep them from hurting others.
Society today has done a great job of making the church look “perfect.” People who have struggles and do not feel “normal” may have a hard time walking into the doors of the church building or speaking up in a Bible class or developing friendships because they don’t fit in. We have created a museum for saints and not a hospital for sinners and the sick. We need to hug, love, talk to, and pray for those battling mental illness and their families. We need to offer a warm and inviting home for them to enter.
My daughter has bipolar disorder, and I often get asked by brothers and sisters in the church, “how can I help?” My initial answer is “I don’t know.” Many times, one may be quick to decline an offer of help because they don’t want to burden someone else with their problems. Or they are embarrassed about how they or their family members might act. But as I sit here and ponder that question and look for resources on how the church can help, I have come up with the following recommendations:
- (1 Thessalonians 5:17)
Pray for wisdom and discernment on how to meet the needs of our brethren who are struggling with mental illness.
- Love and Hugs. (Galatians 6:2)
You might offer to bring a meal. Or to help transport kids and family members to activities or appointments. You might also offer to take a family member out for coffee or lunch to allow them a non-judgmental avenue to share and visit. This might be a time where they can let their guard down and just be real. You might offer to take siblings or children out for a special day of their own. Sometimes they may tend to feel left out or neglected due to all the time and attention given to the one with the illness.
- Learn about the medical conditions including Bipolar Disorder, Depression, Anxiety, Schizophrenia, Autism, etc. Focus on the Family has some great resources. The first people that are often called to help a person in a mental health crisis are typically the police and ministers/church leaders. However, the police are typically trained in how to deal with these situations. Church leaders often times are not. https://www.focusonthefamily.com/lifechallenges/promos/mental-health-resources
- Don’t Judge. (Matthew 7:1-2)
Don’t say things like “you just need more faith.” Or “you need to trust God more.” Offer words of encouragement. “We see your struggles. We love you and your family. We are glad you are a part of our congregation. God loves you too!” Exemplify a Christ-like attitude towards the family and the individual involved. No gossiping.
- Forgive Often. (Matthew 18: 21-22)
Those with mental illnesses may have a distorted view of reality. It may be harder at times for them to make the right choices. Be willing to choose to forgive them.
- Study the Bible. (Joshua 1:8)
But it may need to be done in with a different approach. Meditating on a single verse or just praying with them may be better than a long, detailed Bible study or devotional. (Psalm 1:2) They need to know that God loves them. They were also made in God’s image. (Genesis 1:27) Look past their disorder. Encourage them and their faith.
- Hold the person accountable. They may have a medical condition. They may not always be in complete control, but they still do have choices. Do not be afraid to call them on the carpet when they have acted inappropriately or un-Christian-like. Mental illness is not a license for sinful behavior. Those with mental illness need to learn what is appropriate and what is not in relation to dress, language, music, thoughts, drugs/alcohol, etc. They need to learn not to use their disease or disorder as a crutch or excuse to act however they want. (2 Timothy 2:7) (2 Cor 10 :3-6)
8. God gives us science and medicine. (Job 38: 4-7)
A person may need to take medication for their conditions. Much as a person with diabetes may need to take insulin or a person with a heart disease will take a heart pill. We need to embrace the therapy options that are offered by both pastoral and licensed counselors as well as medical providers.
- Talk about it in the open. Get rid of the stigma.
Preach and teach about mental illness (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Develop support groups. Have open and honest communication and make those with these problems feel welcome and loved. Offer counseling services and/or make appropriate referrals to licensed professionals. Validate those in the congregation who are concerned and lovingly remind them that mental illness is a real and medical concern not simply an issue of one’s attitude.
- You may not be able to offer medical advice. You may not be able to cure them. Just like you can’t treat someone with a heart attack. (Well, I might since I am a Physician Assistant.) But you can love them. You can offer them hope and compassion (1 John 4:8)
11. Don’t believe everything that you see on TV, especially the made for TV movies, Lifetime movies, Criminal Minds or CSI. Oftentimes, they portray people with mental illness, especially bipolar and schizophrenia, in a negative light. They are homeless or serial killers or “crazy.” Statistics show that many individuals with mental illness can grow to be productive members in society especially, if they come from a positive support system including church and family (Philippians 4:8).
Does your congregation have a plan? Do your ministers and shepherds have a plan to provide ongoing spiritual care to church members and their families that suffer from mental illness? The church needs to be proactive. Dr. Jared Pingleton with Focus on the Family in the ebook “Serving Those with Mental Illness” had this to say: “providing hope and health to the hurting in an informed and capable manner is a valuable and specialized form of ministry no less important than any other way in which you serve your congregation.”
I would like to close with this quote from Amy Simpson. Amy has written several books and articles on the subject. She grew up with a mother who had schizophrenia:
“I’m not qualified to perform heart surgery or cure diabetes or give someone medical advice in a situation where they’re facing an illness, but that doesn’t stop me from offering them my friendship and care. Same thing with psychiatric disorders, with mental illness. Just because we’re not qualified to help treat that person, just because we don’t know exactly what they need, doesn’t mean that we can’t help. We certainly can help by extending friendship, by being present, by refusing to alienate people just because suddenly they show symptoms of a mental illness or they’ve been diagnosed with something. And when we do that, we decide that we’re still going to be friends with someone, we send the message that maybe God hasn’t walked away from that person either. There’s hope. So the good news about the current state of the church’s response to mental illness, every little thing we do can make a big difference and can actually save somebody’s life, can actually keep somebody in the church, can actually offer a hope in our ultimate redemption in Christ that keeps somebody hanging on when they otherwise might let go.”
By Charity Goben
Charity has been married to her husband, Rick, for 21 years. They worship at the Garriott Rd. church of Christ in Enid, OK where Rick serves as a deacon and Charity is actively involved in teaching Bible classes for women and children. Rick and Charity have been blessed with two teenage daughters through adoption. Charity has been a Physician Assistant for 20 years.