Mental Illness and the Church’s Role

The Church is often the first place people turn to in a crisis. So why isn't the Church doing a better job of helping those with mental illness?

By Nancy Flory Published on March 11, 2017

Amy Simpson’s mother suffered from schizophrenia for years before she was diagnosed. Simpson’s father was a pastor, but Simpson learned quickly that her church expected her family to keep quiet about her mother’s mental illness. The silence, she said, was isolating and cruel. Simpson’s experience led her to believe that the Church is lacking in how it addresses the very real issue of mental illness. She hopes to change that.

What’s Happening Now

“In general,” says Simpson, “the church tends to handle mental illness in one of three ways: ignore it, treat it exclusively as a spiritual problem, or refer people to professionals and wash our hands of their trouble.”

Mental illness affects 25 percent of Americans each year. Much like a heart defect or a broken limb, mental illness can be treated, and those who do should not suffer shame from doing so. Simpson, author of Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission, explains that “Mental illnesses are real, treatable and manageable conditions caused by genetic, biological, or environmental factors, or some combination of the three.”

The Church is often the first place people turn to in a time of need. And Simpson said, “fair or not, the church’s silence or rejection feels like rejection from God.” Those with mental illness need the Church to walk alongside and support them during a time of crisis.

The Church’s Response to Mental Illness

LifeWay Research, in conjunction with Focus on the Family, produced a study on mental illness and the Christian faith with the finding that 22 percent of pastors are reluctant to get involved with those with acute mental illness because of previous experiences, strained time and limited resources, although most know someone who has been diagnosed with clinical depression (74 percent) or bipolar disorder (76 percent). As in Simpson’s family, many church members do not want to talk about a fellow parishioner’s mental illness or become involved with a person with a mental illness.

Alarmingly, church members’ response to those with mental illness has prompted 18 percent of those with mental illness to break ties with a church and 5 percent to not find a church to attend. Forty-nine percent of pastors say they never to rarely speak to their churches about acute mental illness. Of note, more than 1 in 5 pastors have personally struggled with mental illness of some kind.

What can pastors and other leaders do?

Simpson has some suggestions.

  1. Talk about it. A quarter of the population is suffering — usually in silence.
  2. Assemble a network. Before a crisis, find professionals with a variety of specialties. Build relationships with them, ask for advice, and be ready to partner with them when someone needs care.
  3. Foster friendships. People affected by mental illness need friends who will not abandon them when they’re symptomatic.
  4. Walk through treatment. Visit the hospital. Bring casseroles. Help with the cost of medications. Ask how treatments are going. Minister to people with mental illness in the ways you minister to people recovering from surgery or enduring cancer treatments.
  5. As a pastor, educate your parishioners on mental illness and encourage them to walk alongside those who are suffering from a mental illness.

Mental illness can inflict excruciating pain on the sufferer. It’s often during the worst times, when someone shows up to let the sufferer know someone cares, that they realize they are not alone and find strength to go on.

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience (Colossians 3:12).

 

“Mental Illness and the Church’s Role” is the third in a 4-part series. My next article in the series will address the future of mental illness in the Church.

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