An article in the Washington Post following last December’s disaster in Newtown, CT brings to light an issue that no one wants to discuss.
The conversation we need to have just never gains traction, perhaps because It didn’t raise any money for anyone’s political campaign. Emotions boil over about the issues of guns; however, we hardly say two words about mental illness, and how it is approached in this country.
We almost never talk about this in the church, unless it happens to one of “ours”. Even then, we often shake our heads and look sad and heap pity, mainly because we do not know what else to do. Others may look with fear, scorn or shame at those who share their mental problems in a church setting.
As church, we may try; but often, we just refuse to see. And there is no way to help or support people if we continue to turn a blind eye to the problem that people in our society suffer from mental illness.
A “Spiritual” Response?
A couple of years ago, I probably would not have written this blog. In polite conversation, I might have commented about the attitude some Christians have towards mental illness or expressed regret that, “We just can’t do anything about that.” That mindset changed when I became pastor of Augusta Heights.
Since I began that role on April 1, 2012 (April Fool’s Day–perhaps an unintended Freudian slip?), every conceivable type of problem has walked through the doors of the church. We have had people with almost every conceivable mental disorder, not to mention the addiction problems that often accompany them. I’ve made weak attempts to “pastor” them through their anguish and addictions, while feeling completely unprepared and inadequate.
On top of that, I have seen childhood friends and high school acquaintances take their own lives after extended battles with mental disorders. I’ve reconnected with some old friends who battle these issues. A listening ear and compassion are good, but I still have no real answers to offer.
Sympathetic inertia often turns to motivation when the problem is staring us in the face, and it can no longer be pawned off onto someone else.
An estimated 26% of the adults in this country struggle with a diagnosable mental or emotional condition. Do that math and you can assume that a number of those people could be in your church on Sunday morning. The problem is that very few people in seminary told me anything about this or how to deal with it. Certainly it’s not something that most church members are equipped to handle.
Until we begin to talk openly about it, make connections, and seek some answers from the right people, that feeling of inadequacy will continue. Awareness and education are huge steps towards preparing to do more than just pray and wait.
Changing the Stigma
At a church that I know well, a mentally challenged man just happened to show up for worship one Sunday. He was functionally impaired because of many years of abuse as a child, and suffered from ongoing emotional issues. He was loving, lively, and genuinely excited to be a part of the church.
The response from some of the church leadership did not come close to matching that enthusiasm. In fact, the predominate concern was that he must be some kind of child predator because he was so anxious to help with Vacation Bible School. That and the fact that he sang too loud, off-time and off-key during worship. (It was pretty fun to watch him try and “direct” the choir from his pew).
The church “responses” to these challenges make me believe that our cures are often worse than the disease. We are completely unprepared and react like a deer in headlights when we encounter mental or emotional illness.
I’ve heard the sermons about how “We wouldn’t need Xanax if people would just have faith and pray!” Yes, because everyone who has faith and prays gets cured, right? Does that mean every patient who dies is faithless, or just should have prayed harder?
I’ve known at least three people with acute conditions, who went to certain doctors and therapists because they were good CHRISTIANS. They were told to stop taking their medication because: If you would just have faith and trust the Lord and pray, you could get over all these issues. This is certainly not the stance of all Christian physicians or therapists, but it should be noted that being a good Christian does not necessarily make you a good doctor.
We don’t tell someone with cancer or heart disease or an aneurism to just have faith and pray, and we certainly don’t look at them as a pariah that should wear a scarlet letter around their neck. We tell them to seek treatment, we pray for them, we visit them, and we pledge our support.
Why do we maintain these stigmas about those with mental or emotional disorders? It’s simple ignorance, both of these issues and the Biblical mandate to minister to all. It is also a lack of preparation and resources to address these issues. We work diligently to draw people to the church, but we rarely seek “those” people.
The good news is that we can do something about it.
A Different Approach
How can the church do better at addressing the problem of mental illness? How can we stop the whispers and staring and misunderstanding of the problem?
1. Talk about it, and get educated – Stop pretending that these problems don’t exist. Talk about these issues and acknowledge that 26%, perhaps even realize that number within the existing congregation. When we recognize that this is not an issue for “those people”, then perhaps we can develop some empathy when we encounter those with more serious issues.
2. Create an environment of openness – Work to foster an attitude of honesty among the members of the congregation. Help people to feel that they won’t get the “stink eye” if they admit to their Bible study group–or to their pastors–that they have a problem. We can offer an invitation to openness and prayer that extends well beyond the last hymn of the worship service.
3. Build a network of resources – Our church is fortunate to have counselors that have offices inside of our church building. Most churches don’t have that advantage
But there are many community resources, and churches can help to connect to those. While they are still painfully inadequate, it’s better than turning our heads away from the problem. We need to access the best available resources, particularly if those are not available in our church.
4. Seek answers for problems of addiction – Many churches will lament the use of alcohol and drugs, while failing to see the underlying cause of those addictions. I interviewed a mental health professional who stated that numerous people, particularly among the homeless, self-medicate with alcohol and drugs because their illness is undiagnosed or untreated. Part of the path to getting help includes dealing with the addictions.
5. Inform the community – People do not know how to react to a friend with mental or emotional illness, much less a stranger off the street. There are numerous lessons on how to establish protocols and boundaries. If the congregation is going to be open to ministry, then the people need to know how to handle that.
6. Don’t expect the pastor to handle this – Pastors are painfully under-trained to counsel or deal with mental and emotional illness. Most are wise enough to refer these cases to other resources, but they are often the first person sought out to respond.
It is critical that church leaders, deacons, and members support the effort of the church to respond to mental or emotional needs. Help your pastor and church staff by knowing the resources yourself, and do not hesitate to refer people to these resources.
These issues are not simple, and the willingness to improve our response to them is often tedious and exhausting. But Jesus did not call on us to choose those that we love. As church, we have to seek honesty and understanding, first and foremost, as we create networks to help those in our midst and beyond.
At the very least, we need to stop pretending that the problem doesn’t exist until it’s right in our face. There is grace and peace in the struggle to help those with mental and emotional struggles, and it finding that begins by opening our eyes. The Christ we claim expects nothing less.