“Mental pain is less dramatic than physical pain, but it is more common and also harder to bear.The frequent attempt to conceal mental pain increases the burden: it is easier to say, “My tooth is aching” than to say, “My heart is broken.” ― C.S. Lewis
Churches have often played a silent role in mental illness.
Matthew Warren, 27, had loving parents and a comfortable life. His father, Rick Warren, pastor of the Saddleback Valley Community Church in Lake Forest, California, described him “as a gentle and compassionate person” who was a lifelong member of his father’s church and led people to Christ. But in April 2013, Matthew Warren, drowning in black holes of despair, committed suicide by shooting himself in the head.
Instead of hiding what happened to his son, Pastor Warren and his wife Kay emailed his congregation and shared their grief, openly. Despite loving parents and good medical care, Matthew’s mental problems ended his life.
During worship, Jack stood up to share during the time for joys and concerns. With tears in his eyes, he shared the tragedy of a co-worker who had committed suicide this previous week. He spoke of the pain this person suffered that led to this decision to take his own life. Jack appropriately asked, “Where was the church? Why is the church not reaching out to minister to those with mental illness?”
The church, and society in general, has a poor understanding of the suffering experienced by people with mental illness. People also do not understand the effects mental health issues bring to society.
Unfortunately, the church looks at mental illness differently than other human afflictions.
The church’s response to cancer or diabetes comes from the knowledge that these are diagnosable based on medical testing. The support then comes from prayer and support to the individual, their families and the medical professionals who provide treatment.
Often, the church believes mental illness is caused solely by the person’s sinful nature and behavior. Thus, the support to the individual is to “pray away the demons”. Not only is this response not helpful, it has the opposite effect.
This lack of compassion comes from a lack of understanding of mental illness.
Mental illness is defined as “A clinically significant behavioral or psychological syndrome or pattern that occurs in an individual and is associated with present distress or disability or with a significantly increased risk of suffering death, pain, disability, or an important loss of freedom.”
There are five categories of mental illness. These include anxiety disorder, mood disorder, schizophrenia and psychotic disorder, dementia and eating disorders
Mental Illness is a biological brain disease that effects 1 in 5 people in the United States, Although, symptoms can come and go and can respond to treatment, it is not curable.
Those who do not receive treatment are 15 times more likely to commit suicide. One in four of those untreated are homeless and are 140 times more likely to be victims of violence. These individuals are three times more likely to be violent.
It is often believed that most mass shootings are caused the mentally ill. Only 14.8% of mass shootings are carried out by the mentally ill.
For many, encountering a person with mental illness can be uncomfortable. Every encounter can be different and can have a different outcome.
Many are looking for a place to fit in, a welcoming environment and someone to talk to. In these cases, the encounter can be simple and have a positive outcome for both parties. In other cases, the encounter can be one filled with anger and violence. These can be “active shooter” events.
In these circumstances it is important to remain calm. Do not become argumentative or threatening. It is best to remain positioned between the person and the door. It can be helpful to find a common topic to discuss. 911 should be contacted as soon as possible. It can be difficult to predict the response when authorities arrive.
How should the church deal with mentally ill people? Should it be involved at all?
It can be difficult to know how to appropriately and compassionately respond to someone dealing with this issue. How then, can the church provide support to those suffering with mental illness?
The Bible provides no specific verses. There are Scriptures on the fallen condition of man.
Scripture is clear in that through the sin of Adam, we have inherited a fallen sin nature. This sin nature affects every part of our being including body and soul.
God does not leave us hopeless without a solution. In His love He came down in the form of man and He took upon our brokenness, shame, sin, hurts, etc. He lived a perfect life that we struggle to live. He intimately understands what we are going through because He’s fought our battles and He has prevailed. Christ has overcome and defeated those things that are so burdensome to us.
Scripture teaches us that we are “body” and “soul.” That means for someone who is struggling with a mental illness, not only are there spiritual solutions, there are also physical solutions. The church needs to be able to deal with mental illnesses as a psychological reality. If we declare mental illness to be only a spiritual issue, we isolate those who are struggling with this. By doing this we direct those afflicted to a strictly gospel type of solution. This says, “just have enough faith.” “Keep praying.” Even worse, we go so far as to accuse someone of living in unrepentant
We don’t have to be afraid of taking advantage of what God has given us. We look to Christ, the Ultimate Healer, for the spiritual support and guidance.
We also need to acknowledge that mental illness is medical in nature and should be addressed no differently than other physical illnesses. To do otherwise implies a stigma and shame and restricts the believer’s access to appropriate care.
“In an article entitled “Christians Should Not Be Afraid of Medicine,” Ed Stetzer, president of Lifeway Research, acknowledges that the topic is a source of debate and that medication should be used with caution, but states that “…many mental health issues are physiological.”+
According to Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, “Christians struggle with depression and even suicidal thoughts. It does not make you less of a Christian.” He further states: “Suffering from mental illness is not a sin. Yet, not addressing it, may very well be.”
The most loving thing that we can do to a person struggling with a mental illness is to honor them enough to acknowledge their struggles. We should love them enough to listen and fight to connect with them. There is freedom in knowing that we can’t fully understand each other’s stories, but in the faith community we need to find a way to connect.
Proverbs 11:14 “Where there is no guidance, a people falls but in an abundance of counselors there is safety.”
II Corinthians 5:1 “For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands.”
Matthew 10:28 “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”
There is glory exceedingly greater that we can see. Share Christ’s love with them. They need to understand that Christ has experienced their battles. Share the power of His grace and love. And provide encouragement to follow the lead of the One who has already won the battle.
Romans 8:18 “I consider that our present sufferings are not comparable to the glory that will be revealed in us.”
Jesus cares about all aspects of our heath whether physical, spiritual, or mental. Not only did Christ heal broken bodies, but He also healed minds. We tend to forget this. Healing comes in various forms, but usually happens over time. Mental health is important to God and the church should grow in compassion, understanding, education, and support.
Chagrin Falls Dr. Stephen Grcevich, child and adolescent psychiatrist and founder of Key Ministry. lists seven reasons why church is difficult for those touched by mental illness.
1. STIGMA: A survey was taken of a group of people who never attend church. 55% of those polled disagreed with this statement, “If I had a mental health issue, I believe most churches would welcome me”.
2. ANXIETY: One in every 15 Americans experience social anxiety which can lead to panic attacks. Entering unfamiliar settings such as a church worship service can cause extreme symptoms.
3. EXPECTATIONS FOR SELF-DISCIPLINE: Certain mental illnesses can lead to issues with self-control. One mother in describing her family's experience in looking for a church with two school-age boys with ADHD observed that, “People in the church think they can tell when a disability ends, and bad parenting begins.”
4. SENSORY PROCESSING: Excessive noise, lighting, handshaking, hugging, aromas which often accompany a church gathering can produce intense discomfort in a person with a mental illness.
5. SOCIAL COMMUNICATION: Churches are social places. People with mental illness may not be able to pick up on the “unwritten rules” of a worship service.
6. SOCIAL ISOLATION: Persons with certain mental health conditions are less likely to have friends or social connections. These individuals may have problems with gatherings such as worship services, youth groups, or social events.
7. PAST EXPERIENCE OF CHURCH: Many families impacted by mental illness carry with them the baggage associated with past negative experiences of church. The likelihood of them seeking out a church is greatly diminished.
How can we as individual churches help mentally ill people?
Dr. Grcevich identifies three steps the church can take to help mentally ill people.
1. REMOVE THE STIGMA: Don’t place those with mental illness in a special category which can cause misunderstanding and fear.
2. REACH OUT: It is not our place to judge. Rather, provide support to those with mental illness by being welcoming and accepting.
3. COMMUNICATE BUT DO NOT PRETEND YOU HAVE ALL THE ANSWERS: Express your caring. Help by making others understand.
But the church does have the most important answer. The noted theologian Charles Spurgeon named the most effective cure when he said “I find myself frequently depressed – perhaps more so than any other person here. And I find no better cure for that depression than to trust in the Lord with all my heart, and seek to realize afresh the power of the peace-speaking blood of Jesus, and His infinite love in dying upon the cross to put away all my transgressions.”