Mental Illness in the Church

[Note: This is the second in a three-part series of articles written several years ago for a local publication. The purpose was to do some education about mental health, especially for a church audience. I thought it might be good to revisit.]

We bring food.  We knit prayer shawls.  We call or text or email or even Facebook and tell people that we are thinking about them and praying for them.

These are some ways in which our churches respond to people in need.  We signal to the people around us that we care, that we are available, that we hurt with them, and that we want to help if we can.

This is how we respond to deaths in families.  It is how we respond to heart attacks, surgeries, and all manner of scary physical illnesses.  The tough part is this: for many people, their faith community seems absent when the illness in question is not “physical.”

We understand heart disease.  We know lots of people that have had to have their gall bladder removed.  And even though many of us are aware that there are people in our churches who suffer from depression, addiction, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and anxiety, we do not tend to respond in the same way.

We don’t bring food.  We don’t knit prayer shawls.

Sometimes we don’t respond at all.

But we are called as people of faith to do more.

An important aspect of Jesus’s ministry was one of healing and of bringing people back into relationship with God and the people of God.  Jesus did this not with a spirit of fear, but a spirit of compassion for those who were hurting and vulnerable.

So when Jesus saw a leper, he reached out to touch them.  When Jesus saw someone who could not walk, Jesus healed them.  When Jesus saw the children, some of the most vulnerable members of that society, Jesus said, “Let them come to me.”  There was not fear in Christ’s response, only compassion.

But sometimes, especially with mental illnesses, there is fear.  Most of that fear is our lack of understanding.  Most of us have some understanding of illnesses such as depression or anxiety because we may have felt this way at some point.  It is more difficult to be unafraid when someone tells us that they or their loved one has schizophrenia or autism.

And then we hear Jesus’s voice saying to us, “Peace.  Be still.”  And even though we may not understand, we are called to react with compassion and caring.  And even though there is a part of us that wonders why such an illness would happen, we are called to be open to where God is working in our life and in the life of this person and family who is hurting.

We should not blame the person or the family.

Jesus tells his disciples as much in John 9 when the disciples ask, “Who sinned?” when confronted with a man who was blind from birth.  And Jesus responds, “Neither this man nor his parents.”  And then Jesus reorients us to acting with compassion, not judgment.

We should be compassionate to the whole family because like any other illness, a mental illness affects them too.  We can bring food (because they may be going back and forth to the hospital and have a tough time attending to household chores).  We can bring prayer shawls or flowers to let that person and their family know that we care.  We can pray for them, for peace, for comfort, and for healing.

And in our churches, we should be compassionate to folks with mental illnesses just as we would with any other illness.

What does become more difficult is that some illnesses, especially addictions, become very difficult for families to weather.  And I would argue that at times, family members must set strong boundaries with other family members about their need to be in treatment in order to protect themselves and their families.

Remember, mental illnesses express themselves in thoughts and behavior.  The ill person themselves may not be thinking clearly and may behave in ways that are uncharacteristic for them.  Many older adults with diseases like dementia have personality changes.

This does become an area where as supportive friends and church family, we must be careful with our own limits and boundaries.  For example, it is fine to express our care and love and God’s care and love for the person who is ill and for the struggle of their family.  But we need to be discerning about how or even if we need to intervene in some way.

Just because we believe that we may know the right action to take in a situation, does not mean that we do.  There are times when those of us on the outside may even disagree with a family’s decision, but disagreeing does not mean not showing care and concern.

Oftentimes without being inside of that family, we will not know the day-to-day struggles.  We will not know what has been tried and what would not suit this particular family.  But we can show God’s love for people who are hurting.

And finally, as leaders within the community of faith, whether clergy or lay leaders, we should have an idea of the local resources available to people with mental illnesses and addictive diseases and their families.  These referrals will ideally be people who are trusted and will provide good care to the people in our congregations.

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