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

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