Yesterday, I attended a seminar that was devoted to the issue of mental health, and to uncovering the veil that surrounds that topic, as well weakening the stigma attached to it. In all my years of Christian education (seminary, retreats, conferences, etc.), this was the first seminar on mental health that I had ever attended…but not because I had been avoiding the topic, but because it is so rarely discussed in Christian circles. I wanted to share some of the insights that were gleaned during our time of discussion, which included many people who had some form of mental illness:
There is a difference between being “healed”, and being “well”.
So often Christians think and speak in terms of “healing”, the idea that everything is fixed once and for all by the power of God, which is a totally biblical concept. But it is not a concept that always fits in the realm of mental health. For those struggling with mental illness, it is often a chronic and life-long struggle that does not simply go away like an infection that can be treated conclusively with antibiotics.
It is important to nuance and supplement the idea of healing with the idea of “wellness”, that even if someone does struggle with a condition, they can still live full lives, learning to cope and overcome mental illness with the help of friends, family, doctors, prayer and medicine. In this, wellness and healing are distinct ideas, but surely related to one another – there is a form of healing that can be found in wellness that shouldn’t be ignored or minimized.
Mental illness is incredibly broad.
It includes depression, bipolar, impulse control issues, addiction, obsessive compulsive, schizophrenia, and personality disorders. Because it is such a broad idea, it is important that we do not lump all of these conditions under that terrible label: crazy. A person who is bipolar is not the same as someone who is depressed, and not the same as someone who has schizophrenia. These are all individual conditions that present themselves in unique ways and require individual types of treatment.
Mental illness is common.
Experts estimate that up to 20% of the American population has a clearly diagnosable form of mental illness…the emphasis being on “clearly diagnosable”, meaning that there are many others who may be suffering from mental illness, but to a milder grade. That’s 50 million people in the United States alone. Moreover, physical circumstances can also worsen mental illness as issues like unemployment and war and strife make it harder for people to cope with everyday circumstances, and that means that that number is likely only to grow larger.
I take this statistic two ways – first, it is alarming to me to realize that so many deal with mental illness in one form or another. But in another sense, it is something of a comfort. I don’t think we should be scared to admit that we suffer from something that affects 1 in 5 Americans! It would be wonderful to one day come to the point where it takes no more courage to admit to mental illness than to any other sickness that a human being can suffer.
If you have a heart for the broken, you have a heart for mental illness.
Do you have a heart for veterans? Then you need to understand mental illness, the effects of PTSD, and how veterans who suffer from mental illness have such a hard time reintegrating into society and keeping a job. Have a heart for the homeless? Then you have a heart for mental illness, which is one of the leading causes of chronic, long term homelessness. Have a heart for the voiceless? Then you have a heart for mental illness. Have a heart for those who are marginalized, and pushed towards the fringes of communities and culture? Then you have a heart for mental illness.
Caring for the mentally ill is not always what we think it is
I think we fear the mentally ill because we do not understand what it means to “care” for them. We imagine that caring for someone with mental illness means putting them in your house and getting a job for them at your workplace, or a situation where the church becomes the primary location of diagnosis and counseling, a life where we carry them on our shoulders for as long as necessary. But from the people that I talked to yesterday, that is not what it means to care for them.
Care includes being friends with them, with the same sense of openness and boundaries that we have with any friends. Care means pointing them to the best places of treatment, which may not be at church, but instead, at the office of a counselor or physician, or even a hospital. Care means helping them stand on their own and live life on their own terms.
These are just a handful of the great insights that were brought up yesterday at the seminar. But I want to close with one more, and that is that at one point, it was the churches who were on the very forefront of caring for the mentally ill. Back in the bad old days before anyone truly understood mental illness, the mentally ill were simply left to rot on the streets, or else, rot in prisons. It was the church that created places devoted to the care of the mentally ill – sure, they did not understand what mental illness was or how to effectively treat it, but they did what no one else would do.
But somewhere along the path of history, the church abandoned this calling. Nowadays, most churches do not talk about mental health at all, until it comes to a crisis moment. And when that moment arises, they are caught completely off guard – they do not have any resources, and do not know where to point people outside of church. In many churches, the instinct has become, “How can we get this person out of here, away from my children and my valuable stuff?” Instead, the church has tacitly placed itself on a course where it is primarily the state, the hospital, and the prison that takes care of the mentally ill. But WE do not do that. WE don’t even understand the mentally ill, and have not taken any steps in that direction. WE are scared of them, and want to isolate ourselves from them. WE, somewhere deep inside ourselves, wonder if this person just needs to have greater faith and will power, and snap out of it.
WE need to change course.
I’m not sure where I’ll end up as a pastor. But I know that wherever I do end up, I want it to be a place where we no longer shy away from this topic, and these people, these 50 million Americans. Church should be a place where we can talk about mental illness without condemnation or distaste. Church should be a place where we have put thought into this issue – this does not mean that we have it all figured out, but that we have talked about it, learned about it, and have some resources in place to care for the mentally ill. I want to be at a church that affirms all the components of mental healing and wellness: medicine, prayer, encouragement, doctors, friendship, support, acceptance.
And ideally, I think we should want all of our churches to be like that.