According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, nearly 1-in-5 adults in the U.S. — 43.8 million people — experience mental illness in a given year, and 21.4 percent of adolescents age 13-18 will experience a severe mental disorder at some point during their lifetime.
Mental health problems are more common than we think —even in the church. For all of the things churches do well in loving and serving people, there are a few things we need to understand better. For many families dealing with mental illness within the Christian community, finding any kind of support or spiritual guidance can be challenging.
According to Lifeway Research, most Protestant senior pastors (66 percent) seldom speak to their congregation about mental illness.
Because of the way we have ignored mental illness, we are hurting people. We’ve created a stigma, says Ed Stetzer, Executive Director of LifeWay Research.
Here are four truths people with mental illness need the church to know:
1. Mental illness is not a character defect or a spiritual disorder.
It is often common practice in churches to treat mental illness differently than other illnesses. A cancer diagnosis is never accompanied by thoughts or questions of causation, yet somehow we immediately assume there is some underlying defect, or deeper spiritual sin causing an individual’s mental and emotional strain.
Mental illness doesn’t equate with laziness, weakness, or lack of willpower; nor does it automatically imply a demonic attack or spiritual disorder. Mental illness can result from biological factors, such as genetics, physical illness, injury, or brain chemistry. It can also be influenced by life experiences, such as trauma or a history of abuse as well as by a family history of mental health problems.
What the church needs to know:
People with mental illness love God just like other Christians. They love to read the Bible and are ardent worshippers. They are ministry leaders, Sunday School teachers, and prayer warriors who believe God’s promises and cling to their faith as a source of strength in the midst of their journey with mental illness. The church can begin to embrace a holistic approach to mental health that doesn’t shame those suffering, but instead encourages individuals to pursue spiritual, emotional, and physical health.
2. People with mental illness don’t just need prayer.
LifeWay Research found that a third of Americans— and nearly half of evangelical, fundamentalist, or born-again Christians—believe prayer and Bible study alone can overcome serious mental illness. There are more than a few anecdotal stories from individuals in the church body who have been discouraged from taking psychotropic medications and/or attending therapy.
Such suggestions trivialize the gravity of suffering many experience and prevent individuals from getting the help they need.
While personal faith (including prayer) is shown to be a powerful component in helping ease symptoms of depression, studies also show that a combination of treatment options including therapy, psychiatric care, spiritual, emotional, and familial support, provides the greatest reduction of symptoms and long-term stability.
We would never encourage someone with cancer to forgo medical treatment in favor of prayer alone, so why would we routinely dismiss treatment for those suffering with mental illness?
What the church needs to know:
By offering shallow, over-simplistic messages, we heap more shame onto what is already an overwhelming and painful experience. Offer compassion to individuals, even when it is difficult to understand what they are going through. Listen, don’t dismiss their stories or their pain. Encourage them to pursue all of their treatment options. Love them right where they are.
3. Mental illness doesn’t reveal a lack faith in God.
Ed Stetzer notes, We can talk about diabetes and Aunt Mable’s lumbago in church—those are seen as medical conditions, but mental illness–that’s somehow seen as a lack of faith.
I’ve heard pastors and teachers tell people with mental illness to, get in the Word for two weeks and their problems will go away. Mental illness has no correlation with levels of faith or spiritual maturity.
Some of the greatest pastors, theologians, and founders of the faith like C.S.Lewis, Charles Spurgeon, Mother Theresa, and Martin Luther among many others, struggled with depression and a host of other mental health disorders.
Thankfully, Scripture is full of broken, hurting individuals who were passionate in their faith and powerfully used by God to accomplish His purposes. He also uses individuals today who are suffering with physical and emotional illnesses.
What the church needs to know:
People with mental illness are some of the strongest individuals around, spiritually speaking —they’ve had to be. Rather than keep them away from their faith, their struggles have drawn them deeper in their faith. Do not judge them. Honor them. Respect them. Offer kindness to them.
4. People with mental illness don’t need to ‘get fixed’ before they can be used by God.
Many churches today often encourage those with mental illness to ‘get fixed’ before they can teach or volunteer. While it is important to make sure that volunteers are stabilized, for many the underlying message seems to be —getting healed is a prerequisite for turning one’s ‘mess into a message’ or their ‘trial into a testimony.’
In the process, the church as a whole misses out on everyday opportunities to see God use people right where they are, and to see the entire body of Christ strengthened.
I’m glad no one stopped C.S.Lewis from writing or teaching, or Mother Theresa from feeding thousands of children until they got better. 2 Cor 12:8-10 (NIV) says, Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
Isn’t this the message we preach from the pulpit?
What the church needs to know:
Those with mental illness are not ‘less-than’ Christians and they don’t need to be hidden away. As long as they are stabilized and do not pose a threat to themselves or others, they are helped immensely from the structure and meaning that serving in ministry can offer. In addition, the church gets to witness the power of a living God working through the lives of everyday, hurting people who passionately pursue God in the midst of difficult circumstances.
Learning To Talk Openly About Mental Health
Churches need to become places where people feel welcomed to talk about mental health.
God wants the body to care for the whole person, and our emotional/mental struggles are a significant part of our individual and collective journeys. What those dealing with mental illness need most from the church is for us to be the hands and feet of Christ, ministering compassion, love and truth to a hurting world in need.
In Matthew 11:29 (NIV) Jesus says, Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.
Jesus tells us that He is gentle and humble in heart. If we are to be His hands and feet, perhaps Jesus intends that we the church become gentle and humble in dealing with the mentally ill. He doesn’t intend for those in the body to add a heavier burden, but for us to be a safe refuge where the wounded and weary among us can find compassion and grace to strengthen them on their journey.
We don’t have to cure those struggling with mental health issues. We shouldn’t feel compelled to fix them. Yet we can surely pray for them. We can walk with them. We can offer a meal, a ride, a cup of coffee, or a listening ear to them. Maybe we could babysit for them while they are at their counseling appointments. We in the church body could even begin a conversation about mental health needs that have been hidden in the shadows for far too long.
God loves all of His children. He has a purpose for each and every one —even those with mental illness. Perhaps God wants to use them right where they are to teach the rest of us about perseverance, about courage, about faith. We would do well to learn and to listen.
Lisa Murray is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, a Jesus girl, and a recovering perfectionist. Her passion is to encourage and empower individuals —whether in their hearts, their marriages, or their faith —to cultivate healing and wholeness that will awaken a heart of peace. Her book, Peace For A Lifetime, is available on Amazon. She writes weekly at LisaMurrayOnline.com. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest.
Multiple studies show that mental illness in this nation, especially among the young, has been on the rise for some time now. While the experts point to drug abuse, social stress, and computer and television screens as potential causes, no one seems to look at the one underlying cause of it all. Our youth see no future in this country. If they cannot get a degree, they cannot get a good job. Even if they do get a degree, it may not be in a field that pays well. With most manufacturing jobs no longer in existence here, and a lot of the intellectual jobs, such as engineering and programming, being done in Russia, China, and India, all our young may see in their futures are jobs flipping burgers.