How Churches Can Respond to Mental Illness
April 8, 2013
Updated July 11, 2014
6 comments 97 views
My mom, Clara Stephenson, passed away peacefully this morning after a long struggle with dementia. We mourn her loss, and are thankful that she now knows the full blessing of the hope that was within her in Jesus Christ. A much more famous person, Matthew Warren, died this past Friday at his own hand. As the son of Rick and Kay Warren, his suicide puts the issue of mental illness front and center in churches across North America. I'm in no shape to write anything thoughtful today, so I'm thankful to the person who sent me the link to a very fine blog by Ed Stetzer, My Take: How Churches Can Respond to Mental Illness. Here's a brief summary, but it's worth reading the whole piece.
Stetzer laments that most churches have few resources available for people living with mental illnesses. In contrast, "Matthew had the best medical care available, a loving church that cared for him and his family, and parents who loved and prayed for him. Yet, that could not keep Matthew with us."
Still, the challenges of living with mental illness should never be a cause for despair. The people of God can take several steps toward more effective ministry.
1. Churches need to stop hiding mental illness.
Mental illnesses are real. "In 2009, the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index showed 17% of respondents as having been diagnosed with depression. There are people in the pews every week - ministers, too - struggling with mental illness . . . "
2. The congregation should be a safe place for those who struggle.
"A study from Baylor University indicates 'that while help from the church with depression and mental illness was the second priority of families with mental illness, it ranked 42nd on the list of requests from families that did not have a family member with mental illness.' This is a real need among our congregations, one that we absolutely cannot ignore or expect to go away."
3. We should not be afraid of medicine.
"We’ve long seen the value in the medical treatment of cancer. It’s time for Christians to affirm the value of medical treatment for mental illness as well."
4. We need to end the shame.
Stetzer gets personal here. "I saw it in my own family. Suicide has struck our family more than once, making the news where we wished it did not. . . . Yet, it was hard to talk of these things. They had to be 'handled in the dark' because 'no one could know.' I love my family. But shame was something that was difficult to avoid in every case."
Churches struggle enough as it is. Their leaders may fear taking on new ministry challenges. So Stetzer asks, "Why should this be of concern to people of faith? Simply put, there is no place where Americans are more connected and no place where grace is more expected than the church. . . . Christians believe the church is the body of Christ—the hands and feet of Jesus—and that means going into the darkest places and the toughest situations to bring light. It means walking with those who are suffering, no matter what the suffering looks like."
Question: Some churches have found healthy and creative ways to minister with people dealing with the challenges handed them by mental illness. Has yours? Please tell me about it.
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Mark, I am sorry for your loss. Thank you for sharing this blog post. The third point is very good. Medicine can be a tool God uses to heal.
Condolences and God's grace to you in the loss of your mother.
Thank you for commenting so quickly on the sad development with Matthew Warren. You are right in saying that this will put mental health front and center once again in the news but I doubt if it will even make a dent in the church news. The church does not like to talk about it and like Stetzer says does not recognize the reality of it. We prefer to live in a pretend world on this subject. We really have our work cut out for us as a church. I want to do my part but am not very clear on how to bring grace and truth to the church on this topic.
Thanks for all you are doing,
Jonathan and Larry, thanks for your condolences. God has surrounded us with loving people who have been lifting us up in prayer and with many expressions of encouragement, and mom is at home with the Lord. "One short sleep past, we wake eternally/ And Death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die." -John Donne
A few days ago, an insightful article was posted by the Washington Post about how churches are responding to mental illness by congregants: Suicide of star pastor Rick Warren’s son sparks debate about mental illness.
I'm not sure if I commented on this post already or not, but to me point 3 falls in the duh! category. The medications exist because they were found to meet a need, and while I can see that some depressions could be managed without medication, nobody could do that with major mental illnesses like schizophrenia unless they're anti-psychiatry but that's another horse. And even depressions nowadays are not what they used to be. In a program I saw on TVO's The Agenda with Steve Paikin during Mental Health Week a few years ago, three psychiatrists were saying that depression in many cases had become a chronic illness, so even there it might be unrealistic to expect people to get over it on their own strength, so what's the big problem with church members taking meds for mental illnesses? Is it yet another preconceived idea based on an assumption that mental illnesses are moral failures on the part of those who suffer from these illnesses? Welcome to the 21st Century.
Man, I'm tired of seeing those old prejudices having to be re-addressed time and time again. Can we move on to the next level in helping people with mental illnesses than repeating the same arguments? In Hebrews, when the author wrote to the congregation about their maturity level, he said that although by that time they should have been teaching others they still needed to be taught the basics, and you know why? Because people who don't grow in the faith don't do their homework, and it's the same about ministering to people in the church that have special needs. Some Christians should know better than to still be stuck at the level of changing their attitude toward other Christians with mental illnesses, but we're going around in circles because those who still need posts like the one above are not growing. This should be a non-issue for followers of Christ Who never bothered to consider if people who were sick and needed His help were deserving of it. Who in the Church of Christ is deluded enough to think they have the right to judge other believers because they're mentally ill?
Hi Michele, thanks for the comment. Yeah, it should be a given nowadays that some people need medications for their mental health issues just as some people need medication for high blood pressure. Sadly, some Christians still believe that mental illnesses are spiritual issues that should be handled by strictly spiritual means. Thanks for speaking up against this attitude which is not only out of touch with the realities of mental illnesses but also not loving.
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