Mental Illness and the Church

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Our son Adam was an active member of his local church and passionate about sharing his faith. He would stand outside bars and night clubs giving out Christian tracts and, if appropriate, discussing spiritual matters. His diary captures some of his concern for the people he met. “Pray for Chris the heroin addict, Jack the bouncer, and Jim the car dealer.”

Adam experienced a psychotic episode. He was sufficiently unnerved by the experience to seek help from the Frankston Police. He was admitted to the Acute Mental Health Unit at the Frankston Hospital where he was assessed and treated. The initial assessment is of necessity tentative and the treatment open to review. We observed on one occasion that the medication was causing Adam to be anxious and indecisive.

Adam was convinced his problems were spiritual and didn’t commit to the medication regime. He was also concerned about the side effects. He was a qualified roofing plumber. The medication caused vertigo and posed a threat to his livelihood. He chose not to take the medication. Adam took his life five weeks after being discharged from the Unit.

Adam’s experience tragically illustrates how ineffective our clinical assessment and treatment of mental illness is. It also poses a challenge to the Church to be more actively involved in providing the education and support so desperately needed.

Ed Stetzer is president of LifeWay Research, an evangelical research organization. He lists four ways in which people of faith can address issues of mental illness.

Mental Illness and the Churchth
  • Churches need to stop hiding mental illness.

Unfortunately there is much misunderstanding surrounding Christians and mental illness. Christians like to pretend mental illness is not a real issue because they have such a difficult time understanding it.

It is important to remind ourselves that around 20% of Australians are affected by some form of mental illness every year. We can assume that these statistics remain true for the Church as well. This would suggest that at any given time one in five people in our congregation are battling a mental illness problem.

Sadly many Christians struggle in silence and are muzzled by the attitudes of their fellow believers who equate mental illness with personal weakness or personal failure. Just because someone is struggling with anxiety or depression or another form of mental illness does not mean it is a result of something they’ve done or not done. Mental illness is not a sign of someone’s weak faith.

  • The congregation should be a safe place for those who struggle.

Ed Stetzer points out that we are often afraid of mental illness and the symptoms that come with it. As a result, we don’t know what to do with our own level of discomfort and our fears for safety, or we just don’t want to be inconvenienced.

Church can be a tough place for people who struggle with depression, anxiety, bipolar, or any other mental disorder. Not because church members don’t care about those who struggle with mental illness, but because most church members don’t really know how to care for those doing it tough. Those who struggle can feel lonely, hopeless, and ashamed.

Church should be the safest place for those who struggle with mental illness. It should be a place of refuge amidst the constant challenges that besiege a person with a mental health issue.

  • We should not be afraid of medicine.

I believe that treating mental illness as only (or even primarily) a spiritual problem is both profoundly unbiblical and incredibly hurtful to those who struggle with mental illness

We’ve long seen the value in the medical treatment of cancer. It’s time for Christians to affirm the value of medical treatment for mental illness as well.

There are those who would argue that prayer and the word of God are sufficient for every situation. It is all about aligning ourselves with what God has said and embracing the truth in faith.

But many mental health issues are physiological. Counselling and prayer may well be part of the treatment package. But a balanced plan might also include medication to stabilise possible chemical imbalances. We are not afraid to put a cast on a broken bone so why do we shy away from antipsychotic drugs for paranoia or psychosis.

  • We need to end the shame.

Navigating life with a mental illness is tough. Many people feel an overwhelming sense of shame.

People feel shame about not being what they perceive as “normal.” They may feel like they’re ‘broken’ or ‘damaged’ or ‘they’ll always be this way.’ They judge themselves and compare their lives with others they perceive as being ‘successful.’

What makes shame so damaging is the isolation it creates. Shame prevents people from honestly and compassionately acknowledging their difficult situation.

It is true that mental illness can be deep, traumatic, and life-changing. Even if our churches talk about the issue and have a plan to address it with our own people, it tends to be a long road to healing or discerning how to manage the disease. What we need to keep reminding ourselves is that compassion and care can go a long way in helping people know they don’t have to hide.

I have adapted one of Ed Stetzer’s statements to reflect what I hope is true in Australia.

 “The evangelical church has a particular responsibility to address mental illness because “there is no place where Australians are more connected and no place where grace is more expected than the church.”

Author: Bruce Rickard

Reflections on Suicide and Staying Alive: My son's suicide changed everything. I felt an obligation to understand why anyone would want to end their life. My regular blog posts explore the causes and prevalence of suicide and what is needed to sustain a healthy mind and a hope-filled future.

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