What is the church doing about mental illness?

Nothing.

But church folks can minister to families struggling with mental illness in effective, loving ways.

 It is highly likely that your church has families who must cope with mental illness. Current research tells us one in four families deals with mental illness.

More than likely you won’t recognize these families. They don’t wear badges announcing their struggles. These families struggle with  shame, stigma, guilt, anger and frustration every day. Families dealing with mental illness usually don’t want other people, even their families, to know their struggles, especially the church. For some families mental illness becomes their “family secret”. Families dealing with mental illness may dread and avoid interacting with other church families. Isolation is a coping skill for us.

That presents a problem. You can’t put an announcement in the church bulletin asking impacted families to fill out a form.  More than likely you’ll have to wait for those families to open up to you.

Often, if a member of the victim’s family feels comfortable and safe, they might open up to a friend in church. Any place the family member can feel safe is a blessing. They rarely feel safe at home. Trust is a HUGE issue for them. If they choose to trust you, you may be one of only a few, or the only one, they feel they can trust. Never betray that trust.

  • If you’re the friend they confide in, the best thing you can do is listen.
  • The WORST thing you can do is give them advice. Without knowledge or experience with mental illness, nothing you could say will help them. Listen to them with compassion.
  • Don’t say you’ll pray for them. Pray for them and their family.
  • Take them out. Go shopping. Go to lunch. Go for coffee. Go to a ball game. A movie. A concert. A park. A walk. These folks don’t get out much. ANY distraction, even for an hour or two, from the relentless chaos they live in will be a blessing to them. They might never do these things on their own.
  • If they say they can’t go out because of their loved one, try to make arrangements to help them so they can get out.
  • Commit to call them to check on them. Sometimes they might say, “I can’t talk now.” If they do, say “Okay.” And get off the phone. They might be in crisis mode.
  • Don’t push them to do things or go places. They need to be able to relax with you and feel comfortable with you. What they don’t need is more pressure than they’re already dealing with.
  • If you are honest with yourself about helping them, learn what you can about the mental illness they deal with and mental illness in general. Here is a link to the NAMI (National Alliance for Mental Illness) website. https://www.nami.org/Learn-More/Mental-Health-Conditions  Here you can find helpful information and other suggestions to help you minister to families in your church who deal with mental illness.

Remember: Mental illness is a brain disorder. It is a disease like diabetes or heart disease or cancer or multiple sclerosis. There is no cure, but the one with the disease can manage it with proper medications, proper diagnosis and therapy.

We hear of churches that distance themselves from mental illness. They say things such as, “We’ll pray for them and let Jesus minister to them and heal them. Or, “We need to separate our spiritual teaching from our help for the mentally ill.” How can these churches separate Jesus and His teaching and call to action from those struggling with mental illness? They can not and remain true to the Gospel of Christ. Scripture teaches us to embrace those who are different from us. The outcasts and the sick and the “different” were the very ones Jesus loved and who loved Him.

Jesus can heal them. That’s true. Look how many mentally ill and diseased people he healed in the Bible. But unless and until He does, as authentic followers of Christ, it is our responsibility to love them and minister to them as we would anyone else with an incurable disease. Not ignore them, avoid them or minimize their struggles.

Some church members, even some pastors, think prayer and spiritual counseling may cure the victim of the disease or help the victim’s family. A friend of mine whose husband has a bipolar diagnosis tried to open up to his pastor.  The pastor told him he needed to pray more in order to deal with his problem. He told his pastor that he was trying a new medication and the pastor was horrified by that. He actually said to stop taking the medicine and just pray more authentically.

Praying is vital. Very true. and spiritual counseling done by professionals or pastors knowledgeable about mental illness can encourage and edify victims and family members. However, only another victim or family member of a victim of mental illness can identify, understand and empathize.

Can you help? Will you?

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