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Mental Illness in the Church - What You Need To Know

Posted by Susan Roberts on Jun 20, 2018 5:00:00 AM

Recently, I heard a pastor speaking on Daniel 4, the chapter where God humbled Nebuchadnezzar by stripping away his reason for a time so that the king lived like an animal. The pastor surprised me by comparing Nebuchadnezzar’s descent into madness with schizophrenia. He then went on to say that those afflicted with mental illness should seek the same solution that restored the Babylonian king: humbling themselves before God.

The pastor was not wrong in believing that ultimate healing and hope come from Christ. He is the source of our abundant life. However, mental health struggles are not often the result of sin or failure. Equating someone’s depression with mental instability brought about by God as a punishment is like equating a cancer diagnosis with God striking down King Herod for denying him glory. Mental illness is not a punishment.

Jesus Christ came to bring us abundant life. Abundant life includes mental health, too. Unfortunately, the Church has not always reacted with grace to those struggling with mental health. The Church is the place where the children of God are meant to find healing and support, whether that be for an abortion, the loss of a loved one, or a struggle with addiction or mental health. The Church is designed be a community where each member supports the other. God uses the Church as the place where we are meant to find life and find it abundantly. However, the Church often drops the ball when a member is struggling with something invisible. This makes sense. A broken arm is much easier to recognize than a broken spirit. Chances are you know someone who has been impacted by a lack of understanding in the Church, or unhelpful attitudes towards mental illness.

In the Christian community, people sometimes believe that mental health issues are due to sin or an imperfect understanding of God and the Bible. While a right understanding of God is an important part of healing, Christians often think that the best or only way to “solve” someone’s mental illness is to help them understand God’s love or grace better. This often develops into the idea that the person experiencing mental illness somehow sinned or isn’t a good enough Christian - if they were better, they would not be facing this struggle. However, mental illness is very much like physical illness – it is often not the result of a specific sin or weakness, but a general result of the Fall and a reflection of human brokenness. Like asthma or dementia, it often just happens to people without them doing any specific thing to cause it.

The Church, either leaders or congregation members, can respond with “Who sinned, this man or his parents?” But as Jesus showed us in his response to His disciples’ questions about a man born blind, suffering is not generally a punishment for sin. This attitude towards mental illness makes it difficult for members of the Church who struggle with some variety of it to admit to themselves they are struggling, and to seek help from within the Church. This attitude makes them feel like they’ve done something wrong, or that they have failed. The issue is compounded because mental illnesses often reinforce feelings of guilt or failure.

Just like with a physical illness, often the Church doesn’t have the medical expertise to heal the person struggling with mental health. So, just as with physical illness, the one struggling should seek professional medical help. God can heal any illness; however, he can use whatever means he chooses to bring help and healing, be that medical professionals, family, friends, or the Church. I want the people I love to experience abundant life. I’m sure you do, too. But sometimes misunderstandings within the Church can make it harder for people struggling with mental health to find the help they need.

So, what can the Church do instead?

One important step is for churches to talk about mental health struggles in a compassionate and informed way. This will help people in the congregation understand mental illnesses better; and help those who are struggling find help within their church community. Mental illness, like physical illness, is not always cured. But like helping someone with a physical illness, the church can help people learn how to live with their illness and draw closer to God in the midst of it.

There are many resources available for those struggling with mental illness, or congregations that want to minister to the mentally ill. Mental Health Grace Alliance provides resources to start a support group, and workbooks to help navigate the mental health journey for those directly affected. Fresh Hope, an organization founded by a pastor diagnosed with schizophrenia, provides support groups online and in-person. This article lists helpful organizations and books.

I don’t know about you, but when someone confides their struggles in me, my first instinct is to give them advice on how to fix it. However, when someone in the midst of mental illness tells you about their struggle, chances are they aren’t looking for advice. Telling them any variation of “you should trust God more,” “love God more,” or “pray more,” is not what they need to hear. Chances are they already feel like God is far away no matter what they do. Often what they need is someone to walk beside them in the darkness, helping them carry their burden. Sharing mental health struggles usually takes a great deal of courage for those suffering from illness.

In this post, I have referenced mental illness and those struggling with it as if it were a cohesive thing, a unified block. But the truth is that there are many kinds of mental illness, like depression, anorexia, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or PTSD. There are several categorizes for these illnesses as well. These disorders have a wide variety of affects, and everyone expresses the symptoms differently. Because of all these differences, experience with one kind of mental illness, or one person’s struggle, does not necessarily equip someone to understand another person’s struggle. This is why churches need to be equipped to refer those facing mental illness to certified and licensed professional help. When churches attempt to do this on their own, it is far too easy to get it wrong. As pro-life people, it is especially important that we learn to minister to the mentally ill.

At Care Net, our pregnancy centers daily serve clients dealing with the emotional and psychological effects of past abortions. Research shows that women who have mental illnesses are more likely to have abortions. According to one of the most comprehensive studies on the issue, the risk of mental illness increases by 81% for women who have had an abortion. See our previous post for more information. Nearly four in ten women who had abortions were regularly attending church at the time of their abortion. That means that many women in the Church likely struggle with mental health issues associated with abortion. They need the support of fellow believers to find healing in Christ.

The Church is a place where believers can help each other grow in Christ and find encouragement and support in the darkest of situations. So let’s make it easier for our brothers and sisters who carry the burden of mental illness to find abundant life in Christ. After all, we weren’t made to do this alone.

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