Embracing the Mentally Ill

“Don’t you see all those little black demons flying around,” the man asks, pleading for someone to let him know he is not crazy.  “They want me to die,” he informs the nurse, his eyes wide in terror.  In the room across the hall, a young woman lies curled up on the bed in complete darkness.  For her, gathering the energy required to get out of bed in the morning and begin the day’s activities seems an insurmountable task.  A teenager down the hall has decided that ending his life is a better option than facing his current circumstances.  These are just a few examples of the various individuals who inhabit the many psychiatric units of America.  But what happens when these people are members of the church?  How do we respond when that man or woman is our loved one?  What is our responsibility if they are our brother or sister in Christ?

Mental illness is a topic that is often shrouded in stigma and shame.  We express fear for our safety when there are “crazy” people out on the streets.  We make jokes about suicide, mental illness, and psychiatric treatment or medication.  Despite all this, many of us have a loved one or a fellow church member that struggles with mental illness. Numerous brothers and sisters in the church battle mental illness every day.  Yet somehow, the topic of mental illness is one that Christians often find unpleasant, confusing, and perhaps frightening.

An estimated one in five adults, 43.8 million people, in the United States experiences mental illness in a given year1.  Therefore, mental illness is not an uncommon condition in our country.  Unfortunately, it is largely faced with silence in our churches, despite its frequent existence within our churches, families, and friends.  Within the church, 51% of self-identified Christians say someone close to them has experienced mental illness2.  So how do we go about relating to our friends and family members in the church who struggle with mental illness?

Overcome the stigma associated with mental illness.  The suffering resulting from mental illness should not be a cause of shame.  Make an honest attempt to identify and overcome your fears, assumptions, and prejudice regarding mental illness.  Part of the destigmatizing process is to simply talk about the topic of mental illness.  Be willing to be vulnerable and share your story.

Do not assume that individuals who struggle with mental illness are dramatic attention-seekers who exaggerate their emotions.  Author Kathryn Greene-McCreight, who struggles with bipolar disorder, writes “. . . Depression is not just sadness or sorrow.  Depression is not just negative thinking.  Depression is being cast to the very end of your tether and, quite frankly, being dropped.  Likewise, mania is more than speeding mentally, more than euphoria, more than creative genius at work.  The sick individual cannot simply shrug it off or pull out of it”3.  

Do not assume that Christians who struggle with mental illness have weak faith.  Author Amy Simpson encourages Christians to attempt to find answers for their theological questions, stating, “Facing a mental illness doesn’t have to destroy your faith.  On the contrary, it’s more evidence of biblical truth: our fallen world and the creation that groans under the weight of our sin”4.  Churches should assess their theology and the church’s teaching regarding mental illness, since this can be an area where poor theology abounds.  Simpson states, “Mental illness is not a sign of God’s scorn or an indication of a lack of faith.  We have hope in Christ.  His power is made perfect in our weakness.  Please do not give people the distinctly unbiblical impression that they shouldn’t suffer as Christians or that more faith or prayer will end their suffering in this life”4.  

Promote reality and point to the objective truth of Scripture.   Individuals struggling with mental illness may have habits such as lying, justifying wrongdoing, blaming their actions on others, or alienating those who speak the truth to them (just as any of us can struggle in these areas).   Sometimes we hesitate to address sin because we are sympathetic of what a person has been through.  For example, how dare we address someone’s habit of lying or being manipulative when they were abused as a child?  Not only does this mentality do nothing to improve the life of the individual with mental illness, but it also denies the power of the gospel to transform broken people.  Do not get so wrapped up in the pain and emotions of other people that it clouds your vision of the truth.   You might have sincere, heartfelt words to say to your friend or family member in hopes of making them feel better, but sincerity does not equal truth.  Supporting and promoting lies does not help the situation.   Avoid the victim mentality and encourage the owning of behaviors.  In addition, false reassurance is not a therapeutic form of communication and does not benefit those who are suffering.  Make sure your communication is based on reality and Biblical truth.

Create a strong support system.  A support system involving church, family, and friends is vital to the individual struggling with mental illness.  Encourage individuals battling mental illness to reconcile broken relationships and invest time in family, friends, and the church.  If you know someone struggling with mental illness, play a significant role in their support system.  Be willing to help with practical needs.  For those struggling with mental illness, sometimes the simple activities of daily living prove a challenge.  Be willing to assist with meals, childcare, house cleaning, and laundry.  Pray with and for your loved one.  

Watch for suicidal ideation.  If someone you know is expressing thoughts of suicide, immediate intervention is necessary in order to keep the individual safe.  Instead of assuming that the person is simply attention-seeking, immediately take action.  Do not leave the person alone under any circumstances and seek medical help.  Available 24 hours every day, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline, 1-800-273-8255, is a free and confidential resource. You can also take your loved one to the nearest emergency room.  Call 911 if they are threatening to harm themselves and are refusing to voluntarily seek treatment.  

Practice patience and perseverance.  Change does not happen overnight.  Be willing to stick by your friend through the ups and downs of their illness.  Individuals with mental illness may go through periods of time where they avoid and reject those who are attempting to speak truth into their lives.  Do not take this as a sign you should give up and forsake hope for them.  Relinquish offenses and rejection and be there for them in the midst of their crisis, reminding them that they are not alone.  

Seek medical help.  Research found that 48% of self-identified Christians believe that Bible study and prayer, alone, can overcome serious mental illnesses like severe depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia2.  Although this is widely believed in the church, it is denying the mentally ill medical treatment that could greatly improve their situation. Although it may be intertwined with one’s spiritual life in ways that we struggle to understand, mental illness can have physical causes that require the attention of a medical professional5.  Would you consider denying a diabetic individual his insulin, telling him instead that reading the Bible more could “fix” him?  The truth of Scripture and the use of medication and psychiatric treatment do not necessarily contradict each other. Although the journey to find the most effective balance of medication might be difficult, psychiatric medication may be a literal life-saver to the individual struggling with mental illness.  If you falsely tell an individual suffering from mental illness that prayer and Bible reading will cure them and relieve their suffering, and then it does not, they may despair and reject their Christian faith.  Both spiritual guidance and medical treatment have a role in the battle against mental illness.    

Educate yourself.  Everyone in the church, especially church leaders, should seek a basic understanding of mental illness in order to more effectively help those struggling with mental illness.  The church needs to be prepared to help people experiencing a crisis.  Read books on mental illness.  Know the signs and symptoms of mental illness, how to identify a potential crisis, and the resources available to the mentally ill in your community.  

Assess your church’s attitude toward mental illness.  Every Christian has spiritual struggles and these often become more complicated when you add mental illness to the picture. Therefore, the support of the church is also necessary when it comes to mental illness.  Author Amy Simpson suggests that churches should assess their attitude toward mental illness by asking the following questions.  “When was the last time you mentioned mental illness in a sermon or class?  Have you discussed the tough theological questions that mental illness can raise?  Have you established your church as a community of imperfect people growing in a relationship with a God who is not confused or threatened by our imperfection?  Does your church inadvertently send the message that it’s only a place for the mentally healthy?”4  Attempt to dispel any stigma and shame that clouds the topic of mental illness in your church and your community.  One way to work toward this on a personal level is to not tolerate jokes that make fun of those who struggle with mental illness.  Jokes that make fun of “crazy” people can be very hurtful to the mentally ill and do not promote an atmosphere of compassion and love.  

Christians have battled mental illness for centuries.  A British poet born in 1731, William Cowper was a successful, highly read poet and hymn writer, despite his fierce battle with mental illness.  Cowper suffered major depression and attempted suicide multiple times in his life.  He died of natural causes in 1800, never having overcome his battle with mental illness.  Despite the trials Cowper experienced, he wrote the words of the hymn “God Moves in a Mysterious Way,” a hymn that we continue to sing in our churches today.  

God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants his footsteps in the sea,
And rides upon the storm.

Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never failing skill,
He treasures up his bright designs
And works his sovereign will.

Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take,
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy, and shall break
In blessings on your head.

Judge not the lord by feeble sense,
But trust him for his grace;
behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.

His purpose will ripen fast,
Unfolding every hour;
the bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flower.

Blind unbelief is sure to err,
And scan his work in vain:
God is his own interpreter,
And he will make it plain.

 

May the church reach out to the mentally ill with open arms, knowing the struggle involved, yet loving anyway.  With courage, may we take the hand of those struggling with mental illness and encourage and support them, trusting a God who works in mysterious ways and transforms broken lives.

Written by Adrianne Ressler

Footnotes

  1.  National Alliance on Mental Illness. (2015) Mental health by the numbers.  Retrieved from https://www.nami.org/Learn-More/Mental-Health-By-the-Numbers
  2.  LifeWay Research.  (2013).  Study of acute mental illness and Christian faith.  Retrieved from http://lifewayresearch.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/Acute-Mental-Illness-and-Christian-Faith-Research-Report-1.pdf
  3.  Green-Mccreight, K. (2006).  Darkness is my only companion.  Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press.
  4.  Simpson, A. (2013).  Troubled minds.  Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press.  
  5.  The causes of mental illness are still being researched, but a variety of factors are thought to be possible culprits, such as a dysfunction of neurotransmitters, environmental stressors, and genetic factors.  

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