7 Simple Ways Church Leaders Can Help Families with Mental Illness

January 25, 2016 — Leave A Comment

Simpson Web Friendly-6I’m honored to welcome my friend and former coaching client Amy Simpson to the blog this week. Amy is the award-winning author of Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission and Anxious: Choosing Faith in a World of Worry (both InterVarsity Press). She’s also a certified life and leadership coach and a frequent speaker. You can find her at AmySimpsonOnline.com and on Twitter @aresimpson. Welcome, Amy!

Schizophrenia was a member of my family before I was—but while I had a name from the day I was born, my mother’s illness went unnamed for decades. In fact, it went largely undetected until I was 13. A year later, at 14, I made my first visit to see my mom in a psychiatric hospital. At 18 I still thought Mom was simply going through a rough patch. At 22 I began to understand a bit about what I, and the rest of my family, was going through. At 30 I realized my mom’s illness still had the power to hurt me. At 35 I realized it would always hurt. I’m still learning that God can heal us without closing our wounds. And I have begun to understand how much God can use pain when it’s placed in his hands.

I’ve been part of the church my whole life. In fact, I spent 10 years as a pastor’s kid—so I very much had a front-row seat. I wish I could say that the church was an integral part of my healing. While God was the most important part, the church didn’t play that role. Like so many people whose families are disrupted by serious mental illness, I felt the church was a place where our struggle must be kept out of sight and out of mind.

You don’t have to send that same message to your church. In fact, you have a responsibility to contradict it. Here are seven ways you can help, starting now.

1. Get Past Stigma. With the possible exception of Alzheimer’s disease, all forms of mental illness are plagued by a terrible sense of stigma and shame that accompanies both their symptoms and their diagnosis. People who experience mental health problems are subject to all kinds of judgment—if only they had more faith, ate more nutritiously, prayed more, lived a better life, stopped being so selfish, or simply got over it. They are treated like outcasts, feared, laughed at, or simply ignored. In churches they are singled out for exorcisms, special religious requirements, or exclusion from ministry. Most people show a shocking lack of understanding of mental illness compared to other forms of disorder and disease. You will be on great footing to help people affected by mental illness if you get past this stigma and approach them in the same way you would approach any other person with a significant health problem. If you find you can’t quite get past your fears, hurtful ideas, impulse to avoid people with mental illness, please pretend you can. Fake it and pray for God to change your heart and your mind.

2. Get Educated. You probably don’t realize this: you’re on the front lines of mental health care. Historically, when people seek help for mental illness, they go first to a member of the clergy. Most church leaders are very poorly equipped to offer the help they need, either directly or through appropriate referral. You have a responsibility to educate yourself so you can better understand the needs of a great many people who are coming to you for ministry. Some will tell you they’re struggling with mental health; others will not. Your understanding of signs and symptoms and available resources may make the difference between life and death for that person, between a ministry opportunity and a shameful episode for you. If you have mental health professionals and people who openly admit to mental illness in your congregation, ask both to help educate you on various forms of mental illness, a working knowledge of appropriate responses, the difference between various types of mental health professionals, and what people need from the church. You can also spend a little time on the websites for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).

3. Pray for Them. I hope you already know about the power of prayer to help and heal, and to comfort those who know someone is bringing their concerns before God. But if your church is like most, you never pray publicly for people affected by mental illness. Please pray privately with people who come to you with their needs, please bring them before God in your own prayer time, and please also remember how much it can mean to hear requests lifted up before the congregation. Unless you receive permission from someone to name them publicly, do this in general terms rather than naming names. Chances are, by praying for those affected by depression, anxiety disorders, or mental health struggles in general, you will be engaging in powerful ministry to several people in your congregation.

4. Connect Them. You probably know other people who have walked through mental health problems and related crises. Or if you don’t already, you will when you make yourself a safe person for people to approach when they’re struggling. Instead of allow people to persist in their belief that they are alone in their struggle, help them find others who can relate to what they’re walking through. Even better, connect them with people who have already learned to navigate the mental health care system—a huge challenge no one is born equipped for—and may be willing to mentor them as they seek care.

5. Get (or Stay) Close. When people are experiencing any kind of crisis, they last thing they need is for people they rely on to distance themselves. When people are dealing with a mental health problem, they may feel abandonment even more acutely because they’re extra sensitive to rejection, thanks to stigma, and because their emotions can be overwhelming. Resist the impulse to pull away or to believe that you are inadequate because you don’t know what to do to help them. You can’t cure cancer either—you’re probably not even qualified to administer chemotherapy—but that probably doesn’t stop you from staying in the lives of people who are diagnosed with it. You do know what to do—be a friend and be a spiritual leader. But don’t forget to exercise healthy boundaries. You are not the complete answer to anyone’s problems. Do what you can and be honest about what you can’t.

6. Give Them Spiritual Assurance. Spiritual crisis nearly always accompanies a mental health crisis. One of the greatest gifts you can give a family in this kind of crisis is assurance that God loves them, he has not walked away from them, he has not abandoned them, and a mental health problem does not indicate they have not done enough for God. Unfortunately, churches often reinforce the opposite message and allow religious legalism to condemn people for their health problems (in a way we would never tolerate in reference to other health problems). Even when church leaders don’t send these messages, their silence can reinforce the shame and self-blame that tends to fill people’s heads. As a representative of God’s love and grace, you have a responsibility to activity contradict these ideas and to remind them how precious they are to God in their suffering.

7. Let Them Do Ministry. You may be tempted to believe that people affected by mental illness can’t serve in the church. But mental illness does not take God by surprise, cancel people’s spiritual gifts, or make a person’s life worthless or even purposeless. God always has a purpose for everyone, and God can and will redeem our most painful experiences for his glory. Refuse to stand in the way of God’s work. When individuals and families are stable and caring for their health, encourage them to serve according to their gifts. And be ready to let them off the hook, without judgment, on the days when they don’t have the capacity to give. This will be a tremendous blessing to your church, and it can provide an important piece of structure and motivation to help a person maintain health.

As a church leader, you represent Christ to suffering people. God draws such people to himself, and they often come to the church looking for help. Please take this responsibility seriously and be the leader that people walking in darkness need.

If you’re interested in having Amy come speak at your church or leadership conference, you can contact her here.

Michael Warden

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2 responses to 7 Simple Ways Church Leaders Can Help Families with Mental Illness

  1. Our family has experienced the mental illness of depression over the last couple of years. We are so grateful for the way our church has responded!! We were fearful at first but soon found our fears to be unfounded. I know that our church unfortunately is not the norm yet but I pray it will be. In large part because of this empathy we found, we have experienced a huge amount of healing. And I feel as though after being a Christian my whole life, I am truly walking in a real relationship with Jesus because of the grace I’ve seen through our experience.

    • It’s great to hear this story, Shay! While many people experience unhelpful responses from their churches, I think others would receive love and kindness if they had the courage to share what they’re going through. Good for you, and I hope you will find that as God brings healing to your family, you will also see him redeem your story by using you in ministry to others who need to know that someone understands.

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