Mental illness is still murky territory for those who experience it, their families, and their church.
For many Christians experiencing mental illness, the church can be both a place of welcome and alienation. Just as society has struggled with how to deal with those with mental illness, Christian churches have found the area equally challenging. As a church we’re just beginning to address the issues on a church-wide and institutional level.
The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that one in four Americans has a mental disorder. Of those, one in 17 has a serious mental illness such as major depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, or borderline personality disorder.
The prevalence of mental disorder across the globe is also rising. I was one of the many who was ‘officially’ diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder in the Philippines 15 years ago. I do believe that more people with Christian faith background may have fallen to some form of mental illness in Asia and other countries.
So the people next to you in the church may have a mental illness or have family members who have mental illness. By virtue of Baptism, we’re all equal members of the church, and we need to be mindful of that.
As research has shown that mental disorders aren’t just moods to be shaken off or, in severe cases, uncorrectable issues requiring time in a mental institution, the stigma once attached to them has slowly been eroding.
I felt a lot of shame in the beginning having a mental disability because I served as a full time staff in the church when I was single. It wasn’t even known to people I served just because I was still learning about this disorder. But I dealt with a lot of guilt, anxiety, and fear over my faith. It was a ‘sin’ if I thought anything that was considered negative especially when I was little bit fragile emotionally. I felt the confusing suicidal thoughts even if there is no reason at all.
I do believe that the church has an opportunity to send a lot of positive messages about mental illness, but changes are still very slow.
I see some churches now who take more of a holistic approach to mental illness. A “synergy between religion and psychology” where there is an awareness of the biological, social, psychological, and spiritual aspects of a person suffering mental illness. I am very fortunate to be in a ministry that supports this approach.
Suicide is the biggest area of attitude change for the Christian Churches. It still describes it as “gravely contrary to the just love of self”. “Suicide is not a sin anymore,” says Nancy Kehoe, a psychologist in Cambridge – who in her recent book, Wrestling with Our Inner Angels, talks about working with suicidal patients. “Other religious traditions have not taken that approach yet.”
A Real Disability
Mental illness outreach within the Christian Churches has often emerged from other disabilities work.
Kehoe thinks there’s been a vast improvement in the “sensitivity and sophistication” of understanding mental illness, but that church outreach in that area has taken more time compared to the outreach to those dealing with physical disabilities.
Recent Baylor University studies reflect this attitude. A 2008 study showed that almost one-third of a group of 293 Christians who approached their various churches about mental illness were told that they or their family member didn’t really have a mental disorder. Depression and anxiety were the maladies most often dismissed by church.
Repeated studies have also shown that it is the church leaders and pastors to whom people most frequently turn when they are first in mental distress, not mental health professionals.
We should recognize that churches are a natural ally. Churches understand compassion. Churches understand justice.
Share the load
If I hadn’t found the church welcoming, I probably would have turned to another religion for support or become lost without spiritual guidance.
Most Christians with mental disorders have a deep faith because of the nature of the illness. It’s such a catastrophe in one’s life that it literally drives you to your knees in reaching out to a higher power, to Christ.
I came closest to leaving the church when I was experiencing challenging times in my life. My addiction to alcohol that has been long gone transferred to another form of addiction. The women’s ministry counselor that I trusted advised me to attend another 12 Steps program. I definitely struggled with that balance between wanting to stay close to God but having to stay away from God, because I felt like I do not meet His expectations. I do not deserve to be called a Christian.
In my early years of being a Christian, a couple of ministers who weren’t aware of my illness singled me out that I was an emotional roller coaster. I was put down because of how I processed my thoughts and emotions. I realized that I needed to forgive the church because the church has always been there for me. I understand that the church is not perfect and consequently hurt every Christian because it’s human.
For me my Christian faith helped me reach stability in my struggle with mental illness. If it weren’t for my faith I don’t think I’d be here today. It took a long time, but the more I prayed the better I felt. The more I went to God and surrendered my overwhelming thoughts, the more I felt peace.
God has worked miracles in my life. I believe that God heals us, too, but that doesn’t mean that you don’t need to take your medication. I suffer from bipolar disorder and I credit my recovery to God, to my spiritual leaders and the help of Lithium and Prozac.
Understanding and Compassion
Outreach to those experiencing mental illness does not need to be as extensive as starting your own social service agency. Many within the church say that while the mentally ill often need a range of services-including access to medicine and counseling-churches can begin by simply making those with mental illness feel welcome. It is not anymore about having a bad attitude or unpleasant character that you need to repent of overcoming.
If only our churches knew how simple it is to be the support that people just hunger for. For so many people with mental illness, what would be most therapeutic in their lives would be relationships and friendships.
To support a friend with cancer you don’t have to be an oncologist. To support a friend with mental illness, you don’t have to be a psychiatrist.
I’d say the majority of church leaders don’t understand what mental illness is about, and they can’t identify it when it comes to their door.
Christian Church Conferences provides to church leaders, pastors, ministers training for areas like marriage, family and bereavement counseling but don’t get into “the big guns” of mental illness. I’d like to see churches host support and outreach groups not only through NAMI and other outside organizations but on their own.
I do believe that if churches do mental health ministries, they can help to keep people from falling through the cracks. People with mental illness are much sicker than they need to be, and we as Christians need to care.
People tend to believe that God is punishing them and struggle with why they were singled out for this illness. There were times I almost just gave up on Christianity. I read God’s promises in the bible but I didn’t believe it, and I couldn’t find any joy in it anymore.
I went through years of overcoming the “Why me?” struggle. My turning point came when I was in a support group hosted by NAMI and hearing the people how they are overcoming with their illness. God answered my “Why me?” with “Why not you?” It became a vision that I am a vessel to be used in sharing God’s hope and grace to people who are suffering from mental illness especially if they are battling it on their own.
I’ve seen that it is really true, that this experience can be a grace experience. Our childhood relationship with God crumbles, but we can find him anew, as an adult on a much deeper level, in a much more profound way.
Unlike many people, those with mental illness can see “the depths and heights of humanity, the soaring glory of the possible and the deep melancholy of life. And that is a gift.
We can find “beautiful in the brokenness.”