how christian churches respond to people with mental illness

marja bergen alerted me to an article in canadian christianity entitled “church response to the mentally ill”.

it is interesting to note that title: “… the mentally ill”. a slight twist in language compared to “people with mental illness” but an important one, methinks. “the mentally ill” leaves one with a feeling that this is what those people are about. however, i believe strongly that part of embracing and facing the difficulties of mental illness is recognizing that we are all first and foremost persons. and yes, part of a person’s experience may, at times, be mental illness. but the person always needs to stay in the forefront.

this observation aside, i am very glad people like marja and peter anders, the article’s author, are raising this very important issue. anders and his commenters have this to say:

much about mental illness still remains a mystery. church leaders and church members need to know that a mental illness is not the same as a spiritual crisis. nor is the absence of healing, especially after fervent prayer, a sign of judgment or lack of faith.

many people with mental illness who look for spiritual help face ignorance, stigma, avoidance, and judgment. the spiritual counsel and prayer these people receive frankly do more harm than good.

in earlier times, those who experienced mental illness were believed to be possessed by the devil. one would think that 600, 700 years down the track, such schools of thought would have changed.

one person “came out of the closet” and sought spiritual guidance when he felt suicidal. instead of receiving the spiritual counsel and prayer he was seeking, he “was left with the message that i had no faith and that the devil had infiltrated my thoughts. i had not lost faith in god. i had not lost faith in jesus christ. i had lost faith though in my fellow-mankind.”

how can the church assist someone in a situation as devastating as this?
recognize these illnesses are not a “this,” that one can make no generalization. people’s reactions to illnesses vary from person to person. also, our reactions to illnesses varies; some exhibit more empathy than others. perhaps our real goal is to expand empathy.

the medical truths about the causes of mental illness should be taught at seminaries. otherwise suffering christians can be either drawn away from the faith or they end up throwing away their pills and become sicker.

another commenter relates, “a close christian friend of ours died a couple of years ago after suffering for 15 years with cancer. in that 15 year period, she did not suffer from feelings of ‘shame and guilt.'” but people with mental illness often do.

while i do not belong to any church and can consider myself christian only in the most general sense, i do pay some attention to what happens in christian communities and periodically spend some time in the more liberal christian churches, most of them in vancouver’s downtown eastside.

there, i have noticed that the responses to mental illness tend to be quite good, particularly when it comes to mental illness experienced by people who use mission-type church services, such as food lines, support groups, etc. when it comes to mental illness in the congregation itself or among its clergy or staff, the response can still be uninformed and hurtful. (mental illness, then, is only for “the others”?)

it’s interesting that the article above was written by a mennonite, who belongs to a church with a strong mandate to assist people in difficult situations, such as economic hardships, refugees, housebound elderly, etc. they probably have their eyes more open to mental illness than other denominations. but again, i’d wonder: how do they treat people with mental illness in their midst, persons who don’t come through their doors with the label “people in need”?

the other program that i have found to be very responsive to mental illness is the vancouver school of theology. i have met some truly insightful and humble people from that school, especially those coming out of the spiritual direction program.

i’m also reminded of the moving testimony of archbishop raymond roussin last year at the CMHA’s mental health voices, who courageously talked about his own battle with depression. maybe that’s what we need more of, too: church leaders talking openly about their first-hand knowledge of mental illness.

isabella mori
counselling in vancouver

14 thoughts on “how christian churches respond to people with mental illness

  1. Denise Mistich

    I feel very strongly that the church should accept and support the mentally ill. I also believe they should aid in the healing process. Unfortunately, many are not. As a matter of fact, SOME churches are actually adding to the problem. With an already stressful, painful life, who needs to feel like they have to serve long hours at the church in order to be “in the club?” Who needs the guilt that goes along with not being “in the club?”

    When Jesus walked the earth, He served the sick, needy, poor and MENTALLY ILL rather than the other way around.

    Rather than trying to fit into the church and “do” Christianity, which only adds more to your plate, PLEASE, try a personal relationship with Jesus. Just sit down, relax and put your “student” hat on. Let Him be your teacher.

    Matt 11:28-30
    28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
    NIV

    Isn’t He beautiful?

    For more detail on this most important issue, visit my blog at:

    http://www.mistichministry.com/lifecycleblog.html

    There, you can get a piece of my testimony. I was totally healed by God from mental illness. I’m pill free and loving it!

  2. Rudolf

    A seminary bringing in a few psychiatrists to introduce the issues wouldn’t hurt. However, they may find persons taking the courses have some leanings toward mental weakness. Looking back on some of the preachers I heard I am now able to distinguish some of their insanity, not all, of course. All things are taught as Truth in the churches, and when you think it day in, day out, it gets pretty difficult to distinguish.

    One thing that is quite interesting, is that the church I grew up in always wanted you to hear God’s voice, following up by doing his will. It may also be a reason they didn’t have many dealings with psychiatric society, which deems that sort of hearing to be schizophrenia. Visions and dreams, as well as prophecy are promoted in the Bible, as vehicles for new revelations from God. These latter aspects, along with miracles, are discouraged in the Mennonite faith. Although we were to try to hear His still small voice, it was suggested strongly, that generally God spoke through the Word, also known as the Bible. One of the troubles I had was coming to terms with the oft quoted: “Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and to day and for ever.” (and by extension, God has the same characteristics.) Hebrews 13:8, Malachi 3:6. The Bible was never to be changed, we were told, and so there is a problem here with the issue of inspiration. If God inspires Abe and Mo why should he never talk to Jo? I was told that miracles had passed away with the Apostles, without any proof. John 14:3 tells us to go ahead and ask for what we want of God, yet our church downplayed this concept. Why? Were they afraid we would fail to achieve our dreams, that God might disappoint us, and thereby we could lose faith in their belief system?

    One devout family literally told me that I had no right to be depressed. Being a true Christian eliminates this, apparently. Being depressed, and I had several experiences of it when I was a small child of about 4, could be an indicator that you had done something wrong, committed some sort of heinous sin. Sin, as we all know, makes you go to a burning hell for ever and ever, and be eaten by worms while you also remain alive for ever.

    (did you want a scripture for that? look it up yourself.)

    Today I am beginning to see the concept of self-sacrifice, which was a major aspect and teaching in the Mennonite Brethern church, is mental illness. How can you possibly function in a positive way if you are always aiming to sacrifice your will to those you should esteem as better than yourself? How can you possibly have much fun? I see fun as an integral component to healthy human living today. But most of my life it was not even considered as a valuable function.

    Christians have Great reason to be depressed. They are going to be sacrificed like their Saviour, for no man is greater than his master. (John 15:20) If they are not, in fact, killed for the sake of the Gospel, they are really suspect, as to whether they really are following in the genuine way. Numerous scriptures point the way to the cross, particularly when the Gospel is shared with people who don’t like it.

    One of the greatest Christian pleasures is associating your life experience with some story that came from the Bible. Hence, parents fantasize about the kids being rebellious, running away from home, and then returning for the welcoming arms of their folks. This is the story of the prodigal son. Thankfulness is taught by referring to a story of Jesus healing 10 guys. Only one returns to say, Christ! Thanks!

    There is more openness nowadays, about mental illness, thanks to TV advertising and shows, so it may allow church people to open up a bit to the difficulties involved. I say a bit.

    The “mystery” around mental illness is more that people don’t want to understand it, don’t want to pay attention to those afflicted with it, and simply will not admit the causes of it. They just want people who are sick to go away, because being around them makes the “normal” ones feel mentally ill themselves. No wonder they said it was a devil inside-a’ them.

    During a number of desperate incidences I have had the notion to go sleep in the doorway of my church, since much of the way I am is their doing. I’m sure they would have called the cops.

  3. isabella mori

    the double messages regarding listening to god, visions, etc. are a real straightjacket. in fact, they are crazymaking. i can only see three ways out of this:

    1. leave the church
    2. let the church dictate exactly how you should think/act/etc.
    3. stay in the church but don’t take what they say seriously

    i could only do 1. (which i did, in my teens still; in germany, where i’m from, this required a dedicated “opt-out” process)

    i’ve heard a lot that people are told that they “shouldn’t” have any sort of mental illness if they’re true believers. it’s good to know that this is changing a bit – but so many churches are still way behind in this.

    … and to each her/his own. it’s great to see that denise has found healing in her relationship with jesus. “my yoke is easy and my burden is light” – how wonderful to live with that.

    this cannot be emphasized enough: the problem does not lie with the spiritual connections we make with whoever – jesus, allah, the creator, buddha, the universe, isis … (and the list is long) – the problem lies in organized religion – organized by very, very fallible human beings.

    fallible human beings who are all to often not guided by the original principles of their religion but by fear, and a consequent desire to control things.

  4. Barry K

    I was diagnosed with a schizophrenic related illness 6 years back and I can testify to the appalling and ignorant prejudice, of some (note: not all) churches concerned with the alleged propagation/propaganda of ‘Christian Love’.

    I lost my job, my friends (Christian and otherwise in fairness) and almost all hope, as it slowly dawned on me, that some of my former fellowship brethren, having taken holy orders, were quite prepared to spurn me and still consider themselves sanctified of Christ for so doing.

    Let me give y0u some further evidence of the church mentality in this difficult area of medical science. I’ve suffered with simple depression (as an acomplice to the more recent diagnosis ) for 28 years and during 1995/96, I allowed a group of Chrismatic christians to convince me that I was being oppressed by an entire hierarchy of evil spirits, from which they proceeded to conduct a series of fully-fledged Exorcisms. I have never felt so frightened in my life and once I’d left that region, I asumed I’d put it all behind me, but I was wrong. The moment you mention mental troubles to the evangelical/charismatic christian spectrum they tend (not in every case) to talk of scripture in a pronouncedly denouncing manner. There are several reasons for this

    1) They’re comfortable with their critical views and change means humility and hard work

    2) They think that they can heal ANY illness by imnmediate prayer (and if the person concerned isn’t immediately healed, they become very worried that their prayers have failed, thus passing same on/back to sufferer, with the inevitable ‘your faith wasn’t strong enough’ or ‘you weren’t co-operating with prayer’ – anything to avoid facing the terrible and ashen fact that God , for whatever reason, has said NO to them, which he’s entitled to do after all).

    3) They can’t bear to think of themselves (or their children) suffering such intractability and so they respond with judgemental attitudes driven by fear and apparent need to placate the Almighty

    It’s important to state that this isn’t every christian you encounter on this subject, but it’s a worrying percentage of the avant-garde Pentecostal faith. The Catholics (God bless them), seem much more tolerant, as do the Anglicans and even the Methodists.

    I became a Christian in Mrch of 1994 at a provincial Baptist church in Britain but was ultimately forced to flee worshipped profession of my faith, in favour of a quiet and personally experienced work with the Lord (for which some in the church accuse me of heresy), but I remind them of Jesus and the thief on the Cross , as it’s a salutory story that silences them completely

    Another thing that irritates them greatly is the fact that they profess great comprehension of the Bible (and in many cases that’s true) but I went and obtained a post graduate degree in a theological discipline, thus inviting the question in their minds, how can an alleged madman have sufficient gravitas to gain a recognised qualification? (which makes them feel shallow)

    The trick ( if indeed there is one) is to rebut ignorance with dignity and knowledge and when you’re given judgemental opinions on your illness, to request the personally graduated medical school it came from. That eliminates 99% of them immediately. And when they bang on about knowing ‘the best doctor of all in heaven’, then ask them why you saw them in the drug store last week, with a script from their family physician

    Yours in Christ

    Barry

  5. ClinicallyClueless

    This is the reason that I decided to remain at Godlinked.com which is like a Christian MySpace. It has been difficult because, especially at the beginning, I was told all sorts of things like the above including that I did not belong there. It is so disheartening that the Christian church can be so judgemental, yet secular places can be so accepting. It isn’t supposed to be that way. Anyway, everyweek at Godlinked, I post an article, video or something about mental illness and started a group there for those effected by mental illness. I now have 9 members yea!! But, my goal is to continually remind them that mental illness is real and will not go away. I know I’m stirring the pot…But, I am not going to be quiet and go away…as was suggested.

  6. Rudolf

    Visiting a secular place is no guarantee of a safe haven for persons who are sometimes mentally ill. Secular people are no better than Christians or other religious people for taking up the cross and helping out or being nice to the weird-at-heart. There are many agendae and great posturing in the regular run-of-the-mill life. Phoniness and established hierarchies are at least if not more prevalent in the everyday world, and harmful in many ways.

    It takes a pretty gifted person to deal with someone who is suffering in this way. People generally don’t have the patience. The point is that some people in mental difficulty can be set off more easily, can react more quickly. At first others may not know that problems may arise from their engaging in normal everyday verbal abuse. And soon after it may be too late.

    It seems to be difficult for almost anyone to be completely impartial and fair to persons with a psychiatric problem. We cannot expect this from everyone. We have to try to understand the insanity of normal. By grasping how important it is for some to be considered normal and to do all this requires may help us forgive the mean-in-the-moment person. One reason to present as normal is to have a job. If you veer off a bit, you may not have that job for long. We have to be thankful that quite a large number of people are at least trying to understand, and succeeding in doing so.

  7. Jeremy Lim

    … I could go on forever about this. I come from a Catholic background, and I still practice regularly. I’m also very familiar with depression.

    While it doesn’t apply to everyone, it’s very true that people see suffering as a sign divine of punishment – or something. I can’t stand how some religious folks are so elitist. Once, walking through a mall in Singapore, I was told by an Evangelist I was going to hell because I was Catholic. I can’t imagine what they would have said to someone from a religion not cut from the same fabric.

    It’s disgusting. Really.

    Sad thing is, I don’t know if there’s a solution. We learn by the trials we go through. Acceptance comes from experience, but I dare not wish depression on the world.

    Jeremy
    Outcome3 Vancouver Internet Marketing

    Jeremy Lim’s last blog post..Marketing on Facebook with Groups or Pages? Day-job Jeremy tells the tale!

  8. John

    I find this discussion interesting as I am seeking to write a book from a Christians perspective on depression. The church has always had fringe groups- as do all groups. Historically, many great Christian leaders have struggled with the dark night of the soul. On this list you will find CS Lewis, Spurgeon, Luther, Lincoln, and even the apostle Paul. For an insightful Christian perspective, see Spurgeon’s Lecture to My Student. The ministers fainting fits.

  9. Beverly Vaugh

    Hello Everyone, I just want to address that we all live in a fallen world and to try to explain dis-eases of the mind, body or spirit can be complexed; if we try to understand it from a world view. Because we all have a creator, God who is spirit, that is part of our make up. I believe that God can and will heal that is part of his nature but I also believe some need medication. ( God does not need doctors, doctors need God.) I am interested in this discussion because I have family members who have been diagnosed with bi-polar, schzophrenia… Many of my family members claim Christianity and I believe would not be doing as well as they are without prayer to the almighty God. My niece, who is a social worker and I are both members of a Christian church and was just talking about how the “church” handles mental illness. God sent his son, Jesus Christ to die for relationship not religion. I believe when one accepts that we are all sinners and we have all rebelled against a holy God, that is the starting point of becoming whole, mind body and spirit. (whether you have been diagnosed with a mental illness or not.) I do believe in divine healing but would never suggest someone not go to a doctors, take their meds… But I would suggest whatever the case take responbility of knowing what the purpose of the meds are for, know the side effects. My neice who was diagnosed with bipolar in her early teens, and she started fairing better in life because she understood she needs to manage her own life by being responsible in 1)understanding the dis-ease and 2)taking her meds 3)she believes in divine healing. Until next time, may God delivers us all from our ways of thinking that moves us so far away from him. I apologize for the religious elites who think they know God and don’t need to love in word and deed all, whether mental ill or not.

  10. Amitola

    i was ignored by my pastor and the elders and various church members when they found out i had a mental illness

  11. Rudolf

    One cannot apologize for religious elites.

    Some businesses now must, or do, for some new workplace rules or to appear inclusive, hire people with disabilities. This is not without its problems. An aquaintance of mine recently told me that the customers at the McDonald’s where she works, complained to management, that she talks to herself on the job. I suspect they had a word with her. I suggested to her that many people appear to be talking to themselves when they are actually talking to someone on the phone, with hidden microphones and earphones. To me at least, they seem quite ritarded, proudly walking down the street or sitting on the bus, mouthing off to the air.

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