For 8 years, I worked in a residential treatment facility for kids with emotional disorders. I started the job after working as a Youth Pastor for several years. I had no idea what I was getting into when I started the job, but over the years, I learned a great deal about mental illness and its treatment. After just a few months I was a better youth minister and I understood more about working with people than I did in the previous 5 years of church work. The experience also prompted me to earn a masters degree in Pastoral Counseling while I was earning my MDIV and certifications for addictions treatment. I’m now finishing my fourth year as a small church pastor. Im not an expert by any stretch, but the mixture of my experiences and my educational background has taught me a great deal about how the church ought to respond to mental illness in our communities. The biggest challenges related to these efforts are a product of folks not understanding the nature of the problem and misunderstanding the need.
- Mental illness is actually illness. It’s common for Christians to assume that folks who suffer from mental illnesses are faking it, that they just need to have more faith, or that they just need to toughen up. This just isn’t true. The reality is far more complicated. Mental illness is often the result of chemical imbalances, past trauma, conditioning, etc. The suffering folks experience is real. Orthodox Christians would never say that polio or arthritis are merely a matter of weak faith. The fact that mental illness takes place in the parts of a person that we cannot look at doesn’t make it less real or less an actual illness.
- It’s not a product of weak faith. We would never tell someone that their physical pain is a product of weak faith or not trusting God. However, there are Christians who would describe anxiety, depression, addiction, or PTSD with those same terms. God gives us the tools to treat physical ailments and we do not decry those who suffer or seek treatment as not trusting God. Struggles with emotional issues brought about by trauma or brain chemistry are just as uncontrollable and breed just as much misery. There is no weakness in seeking help.
- People with mental illnesses suffer. No one would suffer from severe anxiety, clinical depression, addiction, or PTSD if they could just make it stop on their own. It is miserable. I have yet to meet anyone who suffers in these ways who wants it to keep going or thinks it’s no big deal. It is often utterly unbearable, driving them to suicide or self-medication. Their suffering is real and profound.
- Mental illness comes with significant stigma and shame. Many people hear “mental illness” and they get uncomfortable quickly. Our culture tends to look at sufferers with a degree of suspicion. This results in a great deal of shame and fear of judgement. They often don’t seek help or talk to family and friends about their struggles because they are afraid of how they will be perceived.
- Treating mental health problems involves actual medical procedures. It’s sometimes assumed that mental health treatment is just talking or that it’s coddling. However, therapeutic approaches, medications, and the other tools/techniques utilized by mental health practitioners are studied, tested, reviewed, and evaluated for effectiveness. Like any other medical procedures, mental health treatment is medicine. In addition, this means that, with help, sufferers can get better. They can overcome their issues.
- The church has a responsibility. One of the most reassuring aspects of Jesus’ life and ministry was his willingness to engage with folks who were sick, ashamed, and outcasts. For two millennia, the church has led the way in caring for the suffering of this world. Mental illness is a vast, under-addressed area for the church to serve. There are uncounted multitudes of our brothers, sisters, children, friends, and neighbors suffering in silence because they are ashamed or afraid. We have a responsibility to talk about these matters and work toward taking the stigma away from seeking help. Further, churches are uniquely positioned to provide care and comfort to folks who suffer. We need to invite folks in be prepared to help them when they arrive.