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How Churches can Support People with Mental Illness
When people are struggle with mental health issues, they often turn to the church for help. The question is, is the church ready to embrace and support them? Mental illness is a complex that scientists do not fully understand. There are genetic factors, trauma, environmental influences, and chemical imbalances in the brain.
Mentally ill people are often plagued by intrusive thoughts that cannot be shut off and symptoms they cannot control. Unfortunately, there is still a huge stigma against mental disorders that drives people to hide their condition and not seek help.
Myths about Christians with mental illness
- They are demon-influenced or possessed
- Mental illness is not common
- They are spiritually weak
- They lack faith in God
- They do not pray or study the Bible enough
- They have not repented of their sins
- Taking medication is evidence of a lack of faith
- They can stop feeling that way if they just tried hard enough
- They should not seek psychiatric help because psychiatry is ineffective or pushes drug use
- people with mental illness should be feared because they may do us physical harm
Attitudes towards mental illness, past and present
In the past, Christians never talked about mental illnesses such as depression. There has been a lot of misunderstanding and confusion about mental illness in the church. Some have felt that mental illness was caused by demonic activity. Others think that people are mentally ill are spiritually weak, in sin, or are lacking in faith.
Mentally ill people felt like they are the only ones who are suffering, and feel shamed and embarrassed. They went into hiding. Some Christians also felt that psychiatrists were a tool of darkness. Some people tend to blame mentally ill people for their illness and tell them to “get over it, or “get a grip on yourself.”
When mentally ill people take medication, some Christians may accuse them of lacking faith in God’s healing and not praying enough. Some even think that doctors prescribe medications to make the pharmaceutical companies rich rather than trying to make their patients well.
Satan and mental illness
There are instances of demon possession that are well documented in the Bible. A mental illness does not mean that a person is demon possessed. People who are mentally ill are more vulnerable, however to satanic messages when they are not able to control their thought processes.
The church has come a long way in understanding mental illness, especially since the suicide of Matthew Warren, the youngest son of renowned pastor and author, Rick Warren. Churches are holding seminars regarding mental illness and some are even running support groups. A lot more education about mental health disorders is needed, however, for churches as a whole to become welcoming places for people with mental illness.
Recognizing the realities of mental illness
Many people think that mental illness is not common, but in reality, up to one in four people will have a mental illness in their lifetime. People may not even recognize their symptoms as signs of a mental health disorder and turn to the church for help. The church needs to know how to respond by giving them support without judgment.
Sometimes people with mental illness are hard to deal with. They may wear strange clothes and seem to have weird tastes. They may say the wrong thing or act inappropriately such as shoplifting on impulse. Some with serious mental illness may be suspicious of others and accuse them of trying to harm them in some way. Others may be verbally abusive to the people who love them the most. They need to be treated with understanding and patience by the church instead of being avoided or scorned..
The place to start is for Christians, particularly those in leadership, to learn more about various mental health issues. Youth pastors especially should be able to recognize the symptoms of mental illness in teens such as a loss of interest in things that they used to enjoy, hopelessness, isolation, feeling God has abandoned them, and prolonged depression. Early intervention and treatment could save teens from many years of suffering.
Unfortunately, many people are in denial about their mental health issues. For example, pastors who have mental breakdowns may refer to themselves as being “burnt out.” This label may minimize the problem and keep people from seeking the medical help that they need.
Christians who see symptoms of mental illness in someone may want to jump in and tell the mentally ill what they see. The problem is that people may not be ready to accept their condition. Until the mentally ill come to terms with their condition, they will refuse to seek medical help and will try to hide their symptoms. Sometimes all that Christians can do is to make a suggestion, if appropriate, and pray for these people until they are ready to face their condition.
The use of medications
Christians should be able to choose to take medication for their mental health issues without being judged. Christians wear glasses to correct their vision, and hearing aids to correct their hearing, so mentally ill people should be able to take medications without being criticized, shamed, or judged.
What churches can do
Overcome stigma: We need to educate ourselves by learning about mental illness and the resources that are available. There are many myths about mental illness such as that people with mental illness are violent. Research has proven time and again that most mentally ill people are not violent, and are actually more likely to be the victims of violence than perpetrators. Unfortunately, many mentally people are feared, judged, shamed, or rejected by others.
Accept them: People with mental illness need our compassion and acceptance. They may struggle with guilt and shame over their condition and fear rejection. Acknowledge that you have troubles too when appropriate.
Encourage them: A kind word from us can comfort an anxious, heavy heart (Proverbs 12:25). The right word at the right time are sweet and healing (Proverbs 15:23, Proverbs 16:24). There is always hope for a better life and healing. God is all about transforming us into a new creation.
The families of people with mental illness also need encouragement and at times, a listening ear. We should also encourage and support the families of people with mental illnesses, who are also affected by stigma. Mental illness can cause incredible stress, fear, and grief in family members.
Acknowledge people who struggle with mental illness at church: Churches should talk about mental illness from time to time.
Provide training for ministry leaders about mental illness: Check the resources below for more information. Once they are trained, they will be able to direct those who need it to specialized services in the community. Leaders should also build relationships with organizations and professionals who provide mental health services.. They may see a need to set up support groups or ministries serving the mentally ill.
Pray for them: A person who is depressed may not be praying for themselves. We can encourage them by letting them know that we are praying for them.
Doctor Grant Mullen, a Canadian medical doctor who treats patients with mental illness, offers many resources on mental illness such as books, CDs, and services to churches such as coaching and workshops on his website.
Focus on the Family and Saddleback Church hacw a Mental Health and the Church video series on YouTube.
Other non-Christian groups offer information and support such as:
National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)
National Institute of Health (NIH)
Center for Parent Information and Resources - information on children with disabilities
These national sites also offer information on local organizations.
The Holy Bible, New International Version
Moods Seminar by Dr. Grant Mullen, May 2, 2015
Mental Illness: What is the Church’s Role? Amy Simpson
Christians Can't Ignore the Uncomfortable Reality of Mental Illness, Christianity Today
How Do You Deal With Mental Illness in Church Members? Kim Martinez, Ministry Today Magazine
Can Churches Separate Mental Illness and Shame? Christine A. Scheller
© 2015 Carola Finch