Here is a story that helps us frame the tension of the church and mental illness: Cape Coast Castle is located on the Gold Coast of West Africa in Ghana. Today it is a busy tourist attraction. Over 250 years ago it was the hub of the slave trade out of Africa. Slaves were held in dungeons before entering the “Gate of No Return” which took them to ships sailing across the Atlantic to the Americas. Husbands were forever separated from their wives and children were ripped from their mother’s arms. Families would never see each other again.
Although the suffering of these people is unimaginable, the part of this story that continues to haunt me is what was happening one floor above the main dungeon. On Sundays the slaves would hear hymns sung, prayers offered, and sermons preached. You see, a church met directly above the dungeon. If the more than 1000 prisoners were too loud or their screams became disruptive to the church they would be silenced. As I think about this episode in history I have a question.
How do we as the church today respond to suffering and mental illness?
This is a question that is being addressed by Rick and Kay Warren. They are speaking openly about the suicide of their son and their family’s journey with mental illness. There is still a great deal of fear and misunderstanding around this subject. I, along with 800 other people, recently attended the Peace of Mind Conference in Tyler, Tx. The purpose of the gathering was to shine light on a dark place in our society. Those with mental health issues are vulnerable. The church historically has seen mental illness primarily as a spiritual problem with the solution of more prayer as our answer. We are extremely uncomfortable and even judgmental with the issue of suicide. The church has struggled with psychotropic medication usage. Understanding can break down fears. Conversations can tackle stigmas.
The church is often the first place someone who is struggling and hurting will come. Amy Simpson, in her book Troubled Minds, Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission, cites that 25% of people who have sought treatment or help for mental illness have gone to a clergy first. Those battling depression, bipolar, and schizophrenia do not walk in and identify themselves with their disorder. Instead they talk about relational conflict, financial issues, or difficulty in their work place. It is our job to educate ourselves so that we as the church can respond in a helpful, loving, and understanding way. As the church we can break down old stigmas and talk openly about pain and suffering so that families with a mentally ill loved one no longer hide and suffer in silence. As the church we have the great hope. By shining a light on dark places we give that hope freely to all.
In Troubled Minds, Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission, Amy Simpson also cites a study done in 2010 by Christianity Today Leadership Journal in which 500 readers were asked to answer questions about their experiences with mental illness, what their churches believe about mental illness and how their churches treat people with mental illness. 98% said they knew someone in their congregation with mental illness but only 12.5% said that their churches talked openly about mental illness in a healthy way. People are hurting. People are suffering. How is the church responding? I want to suggest a few ways that we can come alongside those who are struggling with mental illness.
1. You don’t have to be an “expert” to help
Mental illness may seem like a daunting, scary topic that only those with lots of letters behind their name should tackle. Wrong. The face of mental illness looks like your next door neighbor, your friend at bible study, or the person behind the counter at your favorite store. It is amazing what a kind word or a listening ear can do for the woman whose adult son is depressed or grieving. It is amazing how healing it is when the man with bipolar can talk to other men and receive encouragement and prayer. These acts of acceptance don’t require letters behind our name. These acts just require availability and a little time.
2. Let go of fear, stigma, and misunderstanding
Dr. Matthew Stanford is the founder of Grace Alliance which seeks to educate people of faith on mental health issues. His definition of mental illness is “A medical condition that results in the disruption of a person’s thoughts, moods, behaviors, and ability to relate to others that is severe enough that they require some sort of intervention or treatment in order to function”. Mental Illness is not the result of a lack of willpower or faith. While prayer is an important part of recovery, mental illness is not the result of a lack of prayer. Dr. Stanford gives the following statistics from The World Health Organization. One in four families in America has a mentally ill family member they are caring for. One in four families worldwide has a mentally ill family member they are caring for. As we, the American church, seek to understand mental illness we open ourselves to caring for 13.6 million people with serious, chronic mental illness in our country alone. Worldwide the number is about 450 million people suffering from mental illness. The numbers reflect why this is the great mission field of our time.
3. Look at the whole person
There is no cure for mental illness. People who are suffering with mental illness, though, can learn to manage their symptoms and live in a recovery mindset. Mental Illness is a chronic condition that requires constant evaluation and healthy lifestyle choices. We are all physical, spiritual, emotional, and mental beings. Treatment of mental illness is multi-faceted. It includes medicine, psychotherapy, therapeutic support groups, bible study, exercise, nutrition, and a supportive community of believers. The church must be a part of the recovery process. Mentally ill people and their families need love. We don’t fix mental health issues. I can’t give you three easy steps. Sometimes, when answers are not clear cut, we tend to avoid the problem altogether. The church cannot continue to pretend this is not a problem. We must look at these people and their families and jump in where we can. Maybe that looks like driving them to an appointment, sending them a card, making a meal for a family, or inviting them to our small group or book club. We, as a church, can figure this out! Begin the conversation. How are we, as the church, responding to suffering?
I want to encourage you if you want more information on how the church is responding to mental health issues look at the following resources:
Millie Tanner, LPC-S