In the last 20 or so years, there has been a major shift in how mental illness is viewed within the church. Unfortunately, there is still somewhat of a stigma attached, but as people become more educated, that continues to decline. One area which I believe still needs to be better addressed is how we, as the body of Christ, can minister to those among us who struggle with mental illness.
For so long, mental illness was viewed as a spiritual problem. People who were depressed or suicidal, people with phobias and anxiety, and people with the whole range of mental illnesses were treated as if they were weak in their faith, or carnal, or rebellious, or just needed to have a better relationship with God in order to be free. Medication and counseling were frowned upon for quite a long time within church circles. Unfortunately, many people who struggled with mental illness were subjected to all sorts of religious rites, even including exorcism, in order to rid them of what is actually a physical illness.
I’m not speaking as someone who has been on the sidelines. I have struggled with mental illness since childhood, beginning with depression as a grade-school aged kid, and I have experienced a lot of really painful things at the hands of people in the church. Thankfully, as more has become known about mental illness, the church has gradually come to recognize it as a real issue which many times has its roots in a chemical imbalance in the brain. There is a lot more compassion and understanding now within church circles toward those of us who suffer mental illnesses.
In spite of the progress we have made, though, we have been slow to replace suspicion and judgment with proactive ways to minister to those with mental illness. Overall, I don’t believe it is from a lack of compassion or a lack of wanting to help; I believe it is primarily because people don’t know how to help or what to do to minister to us. My hope is to lay out some practical ways we as a church can lovingly support each other through the painfulness of mental illness.
Obviously I won’t be speaking for everyone who has mental illness, but over the years I have spoken with many who suffer as I do, and there are some common themes which run through what we as individuals need.
Probably the number one thing I have heard (and said) over the years is that we need to know we are not alone. We need to know that people care about us. Mental illness can be a very lonely experience. For those of us who struggle with depression, it can often feel like we’re living down in a dark tunnel. Many times, we are unable to reach out and ask for the help we need or to even have the energy to put into a reciprocal relationship when we’re in the middle of a dark time.
Perhaps one of the least helpful things a person can say to an individual who is depressed is, “Call me if you need anything.” Quite frequently, those of us who are depressed or otherwise mentally ill are accused of not initiating friendships, of being selfish because we don’t reach out to others. You have to understand--we aren’t able to do that a lot of times!!! In the same way you wouldn’t ask a person who has just had surgery to prepare dinner for a friend, you don’t ask a person with mental illness to be the initiator in relationships. YOU are going to have to do it—you are going to have to offer your time and energies to us without expectation of receiving anything in return. (Thankfully, when we’re able, many of us do have a lot to offer in return and have wonderful healthy relationships.)
Staying with the analogy of a person who has just had surgery, think about some of the ways you minister to that person. I can think of several right off the top of my head: Sending cards. Visiting them. Bringing a meal. Text messaging or emailing words of encouragement. Picking up stuff from the store for them. Doing their dishes or cleaning their house. Bringing them a giant piece of chocolate cake. (My personal favorite! LOL) We don’t hesitate for a minute to do these things for a person with a “physical” illness, yet we often forget that mental illness IS a physical illness, too, and the same things which help a person recovering from surgery can help a person with mental illness.
Spending time with us cannot be overemphasized! For myself, the agony of depression can sometimes be nearly forgotten when I’m with a friend playing a board game or going on a walk or shopping—or eating a piece of chocolate cake! It doesn’t have to be a grand production—just the simple act of being with us brings relief. On the other side of that coin, though, is the fact that when we feel lonely or forgotten, our mental suffering can increase very quickly and be the most painful part of dealing with mental illness.
While acknowledging our mental illness, it is important not to make it the center of who we are. We don’t need every conversation to start with “How are you doing?” asked in a concerned tone of voice, nor do we need treated with kid gloves. We need laughter and hugs and fun. We need to know we also are valued for what we have to offer others. Include us in fun activities and serious ministry, but do so with the realization that sometimes we won’t be able to do much more than be there. Let us offer to help, give us things to do, but keep a back-up plan in place in case we aren’t able to follow through, and reassure us that even though we weren’t able to do it this time, we will still be asked to do stuff in the future. Help us find places in ministry where we can feel like we are contributing, but also help us not to overload ourselves.
One very important way of ministering to those with mental illness is by ministering to their families. I have been blessed to have an incredibly supportive husband who has stood by me and loved me and walked with me through the difficult times. Mental illness takes a huge toll on families, as the spouses have to take up the slack in meal preparation, house cleaning, child-rearing, business dealings, etc., most often on top of a full-time job. Dozens of times over the years people have said to me how incredible Norm is, and they are right! The problem is that they need to say that to Norm! He has seldom heard those words except when I’ve conveyed what others have said to me. He needs to know others see what he’s going through and be built up. Spouses and children of the mentally ill often suffer alone, too. They sacrifice so much of their lives for us. Please reach out and support them.
Well, this is longer than I intended, but I wanted you all to know what’s been on my heart. When Jesus was talking about caring for the sick and afflicted among us, He meant me and others like me. I believe you want to minister to us, and hopefully I have given you some practical tools with which to work. Again, I would say that these things I’ve shared aren’t necessarily true for everyone who suffers from mental illness. I would urge you to ask what those you minister need, and really listen and then DO.