mental health and churches

photographer and author marja bergen recently sent along this email. her thoughts on the topic of mental health in the community – in this case religious communities – are very important. i asked for her permission to reprint her letter here, and she graciously gave it.

i’d like to add that christmas, a time that is dedicated to thinking of brothers and sisters who we sometimes forget, is also a good time for church leaders to discuss this topic.

here is marja’s letter:

Dear friends,

A friend of mine, someone with bipolar disorder, recently said to me, “I’ve gone to church nearly all my life and I’ve just heard about mental illnesses mentioned once, and just in passing. When I was hospitalized, some people came from the church, but they just prayed for the devil to leave me.”

As someone who also lives with bipolar disorder – a medical illness – I find this tragic. For a person who is already suffering to be told she’s not right with God is painful. It damages her relationships with her Christians friends and her church. Some even come to believe that it’s the devil that is the cause of their troubles and refuse to take the medication that would help them survive.

Would a person in hospital because of a heart attack, a stroke, or Alzheimer’s be prayed for in this way? Can you imagine how that can make a person feel?

I believe churches should, at least once a year, receive a message from the pulpit on the truths about mental illness. I know that pastors don’t usually preach about illnesses, but in this case, congregants need to learn how to separate the spiritual from the medical. Too many are uninformed and make things worse because they don’t know how to best support people who are going through emotional trauma. The kind of support such individuals need is very similar to the support people with physical illness need: practical help with things like meals and transportation, and a sympathetic ear. Church leaders can help their church family learn how to provide this.

There are two excellent opportunities each year for such a sermon. This upcoming year, May 7 – 13 is Mental Health Week. In October there is a Mental Health Awareness Week as well.

Here is a link to an article I recently wrote which will give some ideas on what good church support looks like.

If you know someone who is a pastor, could you please forward this message on to him or her? You would be doing a big service for the many who suffer from mental illness and need to be understood.

Many thanks,
marja bergen
Author of Riding the Roller Coaster: Living with Mood Disorders

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