Mental Illness, Isolation, and Ministry

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The discussion last week after my post about the Tucson shooting brought home to me all the more clearly that mental illnesses do not affect “those people” over there, but they affect us. Pejorative labels like “crazy” and “whacko” only reinforce this separation or stigma which hovers over people with mental illnesses. But the people who live with mental illness are not just those with the disease itself, but also their family members, friends, fellow church members, and society as a whole.

We’re in this together, and the more we try to separate the “us” (whoever that may be) from the “them” (people with mental illnesses) the more troublesome the mental illnesses will be. Just as with other disabilities, we have a collective responsibility as a church and as a society to do to others as we would have them do to us.

Harriet Brown was forced to think carefully about stigma after he daughter Kitty was diagnosed with anorexia several years ago. Harriet wrote an insightful memoir published last year about her family’s experiences. Reflecting on stigma she wrote, “Back in the 1600’s, people thought you could catch a mental illness by touching someone who had one. We haven’t come very far from that idea. We treat people with mental illnesses like lepers, stepping over them in the street when their disorders lead to homelessness, poverty, drug addiction; we shun them when they turn out to be people we know. A few psychiatric disorders have lost a little of that stigma—for example, people talk more openly now about depression and bipolar disorder. But with few exceptions we still don’t want to hear about the most severe cases of depression, or about the inner lives of people with schizophrenia or personality disorders. Once the label is slapped on, you enter a world made nightmarish not just by whatever disorder you’ve got but by the stress of being marginalized in a society that fears and loathes any hint of mental differences” (Brave Girl Eating, New York: HarperCollins, 2010, pp. 61).

Our collective responsibility means that we need to understand not only compassion and reflective listening and where to get resources but also how to set appropriate boundaries and even when to make decisions for someone who is not competent to make decisions for herself. Brown describes the “refeeding” program that they did with Kitty to restore her from severe malnutrition that put her into a hospital ICU to good health. And Kitty wasn’t offered much choice about what she would eat or how much.

Brown said that to expect Kitty to be able to decide for herself, when her anorexia was at its worst, what she would eat and when and how much would have been cruel. The voice of “the demon,” as Brown calls Kitty’s anorexia, was much too overpowering in Kitty’s life for Kitty to overcome that voice herself. Brown and her husband Jamie had to make diet and portion decisions for Kitty or she would have died.

But as hard as it was for the Browns, making nutrition decisions for their eighth grade child is still much less difficult than helping a severely mentally ill parishioner get the help that he needs (as Pastor Randy described in his comments last week). The Browns never held Kitty and forced food into her mouth. But they were still Kitty’s legal guardians. She still lived in their home. They had a lot of say over what she could be allowed to do and what they would not allow her to do. But trying to get help for an adult, who is not a family member, can feel overwhelming as Pastor Randy describes.

What do we do? Here are a few thoughts, and I would love to hear yours as well.

  • Pray for people with mental illnesses, their families, for churches, courts, mental health workers, and lawmakers.
  • Develop relationships. Let us who are part of the church especially not run away from people living with mental illnesses, but love as Christ first loved us.
  • Get informed about mental illness and basic steps to help. A fine new training, Mental Health First Aid, has become available in the US and in Canada in the past few years. Disability Concerns has a some resources as well.
  • Get involved in the mental health and political systems. Not everyone’s calling is the same, but I’m am thankful for Christians who serve as counselors, psychologists, psychiatrists, researchers, social workers, case workers, judges, lawmakers and others who seek to live out their Christian commitment in whole or in part in ministering with people with mental illnesses. Some of us may feel called to lobby decision makers for broader and better services for people with mental illnesses and their families.

For far too long people with mental illnesses and their families have stood alone. Has your church found a way to minister well with people living with mental illnesses? What have they done? Do you have other ideas? Please share them.

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Hi Mark,   I wish this accurate srticle would incourage me. Sadly it doesn;t because I feel i limbo with out a real voice or even a reasonable hope of being heard. The nuance in the MH issue's is very important in understandig the scope of what we are talking about. But the real dicusion needed is much broader than the extreme cases alone. I have dealt in both espceicialy during my street ministry and through SAM's group.

 I have so much tell about illness, isolation, Mh, and the faith required and granted during this time but I can't write anymoe with out a depleating effort. Verbaly I am better but this is frustrating.  I cannot communicate and when I do I feel few attempt to engage . Does the individual matter anymore like God taught in both testemants?. When you are sick cronically  with no real hope of recovery, you are totaly alone and marginalized. During that same post on the secound Arizona Tradagy I chose to represent  informed observations and idea's about illness , MH and family (never made that far) . I ended up  defending peceptions i FEEL ARE CORRECT. bUT LIKE A LOT DICUSSION HERE WE STOP SHORT IF PAIN AND SUFFERING IS INVOLVED. Randy offended me and then fled. God still told me to honor him because HE IS A BROTHER,. When is right time to be honest?

Ken

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Ken,

I appreciate so much that you stay involved with discussions even though sometimes they are difficult for you.

As to your final question, I think that the right time to be honest is always. But this medium of a public discussion forum on a social network has some severe limitations as you acknowledge. In interacting with others, we can read words, but we don't hear the voice, see the eyes, or experience the personal connection that can come with a face to face discussion. So it is very difficult to guess what someone's intent is simply from what they say or do not say.

It seems to me that as different people post our comments, we are writing out of our own experiences and telling our own stories for others to "hear." (Clearly a lot of people are listening since this already has had 88 page views as of the time I write this.) We're engaging together to get a better understanding of how each of us sees life and experiences the world. So once again, thank you for telling how you see life from your experience. This is helpful to all who read.

God's blessings, Mark

Hi Mark

On "Mental Illness", I have been an experienced consumer as the wife of a doctor with severe Bipolar Disorder/Manic Depression for 27 years. At the time of diagnosis, shock horror, we already had 4 children aged 1, 3, 5,& 7. There was a history of the illness but it was kept under wraps by my church going mother-in-law. She still wouldn't disclose any details after the diagnosis and remained in denial till her sons suicide in 2009. She also lost her mother to suicide when she was 16. Her son was 55.

If mental illness is not accepted and supported within Christian families, what hope is there? Isolation resulted from all our friends including those from the church. Deliverance was proposed by some, to the total destruction of a marriage, career and ultimately loss of life. The family and my own children blamed me. This was based on lies. Yet church going families chose to believe it over the facts. Isolation? You could call it that. But, my faith in God only grew. I am not alone!

As to "Ministry"; my book is my testament to overcoming impossible odds when God is on side. I am a retired nurse turned author to help others make less mistakes and more informed decisions using my hindsight as foresight. The main thrust is to protect from and prevent emotional damage of children in the marriage/relationship. The well parent is all they have. I have donated my proceeds to "World Visions Rescue Programme", for enslaved, abused, damaged kids.

A Butterfly Landed An Eagle, is my true story, from butterfly to becoming an overcoming eagle and landing another Christian Eagle in my second husband; a miracle in itself. I thank God for His provision, I emerged whole not a gibbering, abused, remnant of humanity. I could have lost my mind or my life if I stayed in my doomed marriage. As it was, I stayed too long. My marriage vows were my un-doing. http://laineatamazon.blogspot.com has links for purchase.

Please leave your comments as they are valued. I can only tell of my experiences and must disclaim any conclusions that may be drawn from or with my book. I found every church attended in Perth to be out of their depth or not properly informed to deal with mental illness. There are side issues such as business, charismatic practices and praying in tongues. Deliverance without medications is dangerous and may result in suicide from untreated depression.

God bless you as you overcome barriers to ministry in mental illness and its isolation.

Thanks Elizabeth, Your testimony moved me to tears of sadness and joy. The sadness for you and your children and the joy that the Lord came along side of you because of  faith.

Although my story is different, one fact we share. That the Lord is always there with us! In my sickness I have with the Lords help,  dedicated my efforts on the affects my illness has on my wife and children. There is really not much people can due for me but when fellow believers ask I tell them to help my family which indirectly helps me. The only issue is is it doesn't happen very often.

People want to fix things and struggle when the fix doesn't have the immediate result. When I first got sick , people were there to help but unlike other illness brain disfunction(Mine from MS) is rarely resolved where people return to acceptable norm. People and friends burnout and move on but the family doesn;t have that choice. I can empathize with them because I was on that side of the problem many times.

I tell my story to glorify God in His faithfullness and to ask for help for wife and kids. God reminded me that as far as I am concerned, I am blessed and his Grace is my reward. That doesn't mean He will remove the suffering but it gives it a purpose of keeping me humbled which I always needed.

Thanks for your affimation about your relationship with the Lord. You made my day.

God bless you and fanily

Ken

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