Wholly Living

Loving Those Affected By Mental Illness

Why is there a disconnect between hurting families affected by mental illness and the comfort and support of the church? by Kirsten Panachyda

The prayer list in the church bulletin carries familiar hard stories, written in bullet points. A person waiting for the results of a Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scan. An expecting first-time mom scheduled for a c-section. Safe travel for a missionary couple. Scan the list again. Is there a prayer request for someone suffering from mental illness? Have you ever seen a request like that? If not, why not? Statistics say that one in four Americans will struggle with a mental health issue during their lifetime—1 in 5 adolescents are struggling with one right now. Is the church immune? 

I know it is not. I know because mental illness has touched my family. My son has bipolar disorder, and I have suffered from clinical depression. Because of our family’s openness about these illnesses, we have been approached many times by others, especially parents, but also grandparents, and people of all ages suffering themselves, all looking for a sympathetic ear.

Loving one another undergirds the calling of all Christ’s followers. Yet individuals and families affected by mental illness often do not experience nurture and sustenance from the family of God. Mental illness causes great stress and suffering. Those enduring its trials either personally, or because someone they love is ill, need help. The toll of crises, prolonged recovery time, and ongoing management can be mitigated by a strong support system. The care of the church could make a world of difference for a person or family dealing with the pain of mental illness.

Why is there a disconnect between hurting families affected by mental illness and the comfort and support of the church? More importantly, what can we do about it? One serious reason people with mental illnesses and their families may not experience the rally of their church around them is their own lack of disclosure.

What are some of the obstacles to asking for and receiving help?

  • People with mental illness may feel shame about their condition.
  • They may have had negative reactions in the past when they disclosed.
  • They may have anosognosia (a symptom of some mental illnesses which prevents people from self-awareness about their condition).
  • Family members who need prayer and support may not have permission to disclose from their ill relative.
  • People with mental illnesses and their families may have assumptions about how they would be received.
  • There may not be a welcoming, nonjudgmental forum to talk about the condition. Sometimes church leaders or members know about a person in the congregation with mental illness, but still do not offer help, even if they would like to. What can cause this gap between awareness and action?
  • Leaders may not be educated about mental illnesses.
  • Church members or leaders may have unscientific and/or unbiblical beliefs about mental illness.
  • There may be stigma, a feeling that mental illness is shameful and embarrassing to discuss.
  • Pastors may not know mental illness affects their congregation.
  • Leaders, from pastors to youth group teachers, may be reluctant to talk about mental illness because they are not experts.
  • Those leaders who want to help may not know where to access resources.

What are some positive actions that can change the experience of people with mental illness in the church?

  • Take a truism to heart: What is preached in the pulpit can be discussed in the fellowship hall. If the pastor or minister talks about mental illness, church members feel freer to join the conversation.
  • Invite speakers. Partner with people who can educate the church’s leaders and members. Offer helpful workshops for parents whose kids have mental illnesses. Host seminars for youth workers on the topic. Host an event with local experts or organizations that help educate on mental health.
  • Research and stock reputable books on mental illness for the church bookstore, library, or to give to those looking for resources.
  • Include people living with mental illness in prayer concerns.
  • Treat affected families like other families dealing with illness: make meals, offer childcare, send cards.
  • Visit or send cards to people hospitalized.
  • Make and regularly update a resource guide for people who are looking for help. This can include reputable websites, books, local and national organizations, local mental health providers.
  • Include, invite, greet, be friendly to those with mental illnesses and their families. Events centered around an activity are often easier for people than purely social gatherings or conversation-oriented groups like Bible studies.
  • Most of all, remember that a person with mental illness is first a person: beloved by God, precious to the Savior, an important and needed part of the Body of Christ, gifted to serve, loved by family, and an individual soul.

The tasks of the church are to love and serve people, and to make disciples. As we pursue this work, let’s make sure we are loving all people well, including those who are affected by mental illness. The church is not immune to mental illness, but it can be a place where healing is supported, hope is nurtured, and comfort is found.

Kirsten Panachyda of Central NY writes and speaks to infuse courage into the soul weary. She blogs at kirstenp.com on topics of faith and loving kids with mental illness.

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