How Does Your Church See Mental Illness?

Going my way?
This should supply direction and dialogue on the issues faced by every church member. It is a great opportunity we have been given— to minister to every person in the Body of Christ. —Bryan
by Ken Camp, Associated Baptist Press  —

Living with depression — or any other form of mental illness — is like viewing life “through a glass darkly,” according to Jessy Grondin, a student in Vanderbilt University’s Divinity School. “It distorts how you see things.”

Like one in four Americans, Grondin wrestles with mental illness, having struggled with severe bouts of depression since her elementary-school days. Depression is one of the most common types of mental illness, along with bipolar disorder, another mood-altering malady. Other forms of mental illness include schizophrenia and disorders related to anxiety, eating, substance abuse and attention deficit/hyperactivity.

Like many Americans with mental illness, Grondin and her family looked to the church for help. And she found the response generally less-than-helpful. “When I was in the ninth grade and hospitalized for depression, only a couple of people even visited me, and that was kind of awkward. I guess they didn’t know what to say,” said Grondin, who grew up in a Southern Baptist church in Alabama.

Generally, most Christians she knew dealt with her mood disorder by ignoring it, she said. “It was just nonexistent, like it never happened,” she said. “They never acknowledged it.” When she was an adolescent, many church members just thought of her as a troublemaker, not a person dealing with an illness, she recalled.

A few who acknowledged her diagnosed mood disorder responded with comments Grondin still finds hurtful. “When dealing with people in the church … some see mental illness as a weakness — a sign you don’t have enough faith,” she said. “They said: ‘It’s a problem of the heart. You need to straighten things out with God.’ They make depression out to be a sin, because you don’t have the joy in your life a Christian is supposed to have.”

A Baylor University study revealed that among Christians who approached their local church for help in response to a personal or family member’s diagnosed mental illness, more than 30 percent were told by a minister that they or their loved one did not really have a mental illness. And 57 percent of the Christians who were told by a minister that they were not mentally ill quit taking their medication.

That troubles neuroscientist Matthew Stanford. “It’s not a sin to be sick,” he insists. Stanford, professor of psychology and neuroscience and director of the doctoral program in psychology at Baylor, acknowledges religion’s longstanding tense relationship with behavioral science. And he believes that conflict destroys lives. “Men and women with diagnosed mental illness are told they need to pray more and turn from their sin. Mental illness is equated with demon possession, weak faith and generational sin,”

Stanford writes in his recently released book, Grace for the Afflicted. “The underlying cause of this stain on the church is a lack of knowledge, both of basic brain function and of scriptural truth.” As an evangelical Christian who attends Antioch Community Church in Waco, Texas, Stanford understands underlying reasons why many Christians view psychology and psychiatry with suspicion. “When it comes to the behavioral sciences, many of the early fathers were no friends of religion. That’s certainly true of Freud and Jung,” he noted in an interview.

Many conservative Christians also believe the behavioral sciences tend to justify sin, he added, pointing particularly to homosexual behavior. In 1973, the American Psychiatric Association famously removed homosexuality from its revised edition of its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. As a theologically conservative Christian, Stanford stressed that scripture, not the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, constitutes the highest authority.

But that doesn’t mean the Bible is an encyclopedia of knowledge in all areas, and all people benefit from scientific insights into brain chemistry and the interplay of biological and environmental factors that shape personality. Furthermore, while he does not presume to diagnose with certainty cases of mental illness millennia after the fact, Stanford believes biblical figures — Job, King Saul of Israel and King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, among others — demonstrated symptoms of some types of mental illness. “Mental disorders do not discriminate according to faith,” he said.

Regardless of their feelings about some psychological or psychiatric approaches, Christians need to recognize mental illnesses are genuine disorders that originate in faulty biological processes, Stanford insisted. “It’s appropriate for Christians to be careful about approaches to treatment, but they need to understand these are real people dealing with real suffering,” he said. Richard Brake, director of counseling and psychological services for Texas Baptist Child & Family Services, agrees. “The personal connection is important. Church leaders need to be open to the idea that there are some real mental-health issues in their congregation,” Brake said.

Ministers often have training in pastoral counseling to help people successfully work through normal grief after a loss, but may lack the expertise to recognize persistent mental-health problems stemming from deeper life issues or biochemical imbalances, he noted. Internet resources are available through national mental-health organizations and associations of Christian mental-health providers. But the best way to learn about available mental health treatment — and to determine whether ministers would be comfortable referring people to them — is through personal contact, Brake and Stanford agreed. “Get to know counselors in the community,” Brake suggested. “Find out how they work, what their belief systems are and how they integrate them into their practices.”

Mental-health providers include school counselors and case managers with state agencies, as well as psychiatrists and psychologists in private practice or associated with secular or faith-related treatment facilities, he noted. Stanford and Brake emphasized the vital importance of making referrals to qualified mental-health professionals, but they also stressed the role of churches in creating a supportive and spiritually nurturing environment for people with mental-health disorders. Mental illness does not illustrate lack of faith, but it does have spiritual effects, they agreed. “Research indicates people with an active faith life who are involved in congregational life get through these problems more smoothly,” Brake said.

Churches cannot “fix” people with mental illness, but they can offer support to help them cope. “The church has a tremendous role to play. Research shows the benefits of a religious social support system,” Stanford said. They stressed the importance of creating a climate of unconditional love and acceptance for mentally ill people in church — a need Grondin echoed. “There needs to be an unconditional sense of community and relationships,” she said. She emphasized the importance of establishing relationships that may not be reciprocally satisfying all the time.

People with mental-health issues may not be as responsive or appreciative as some Christians would like them to be, she noted. “Others need to take the initiative and keep the relationship established. People don’t realize how hard it can be (for a person with a mood disorder) to summon the courage just to get out of bed,” Grondin said. Christians who seek to reach out to people with mental illness need to recognize “they are not able to see things clearly, and it’s not their fault,” Grondin added.

Mostly, Christians need to offer acceptance to people with mental illness — even if they don’t fully understand, she insisted. “Just be present. Offer support and love,” Grondin concluded. “You won’t always know what to say. Just speak words of support into a life of serious struggles. That means more than anything.”

(EDITOR’S NOTE — Camp is managing editor of the Texas Baptist Standard.)
 

A great book:

“Grace for the Afflicted: A Clinical and Biblical Perspective on Mental Illness” [Paperback] can be found at www.Amazon.com, by Matthew S. Stanford Ph.D

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For more information: National Alliance on Mental Illness (800) 950-6264 Anxiety Disorders Association of America (240) 485-1001  Depression & Bipolar Support Alliance (800) 826-3632  American Association of Christian Counselors (800) 526-8673 Stephen Ministries (314) 428-2600

 

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Dancing With Bruises

 

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Photo by Beto Franklin on Pexels.com

It seems like bruises are part of life’s gift package to us.

Dancers are some of the most talented people I know. Their gracefulness can be seen both on and off the stage. A dancer’s training is far from easy. By choosing to become dancers they have made a decision to absorb pain. Their toes and feet are blistered and bruised; they take constant abuse. Some must live with chronic tendonitis. Their feet bleed sometimes, and pain is their constant companion.

Two things to consider.

  • They choose to dance. Dancers have an iron-will and an elegant grace. I suppose that is why they can dance.
  • The scars and bruises often become “badges of honor.” And they wouldn’t have it any other way. They would rather dance in pain, than not to dance at all.

Someone once compared depression as a “mental bruise.” I understand this. As depressed people, we must choose to walk out our lives from this pain. I know what it is like to bury myself in my bed for several weeks at a time. My own mental bruise was simply more than I could take. There was a sensation of sinking into blackness, a sense of total and complete despair. I felt completely lost, and completely alone.

I prayed. I groaned, and I prayed again. My sense of being totally lost was beyond comprehension. Dear reader, this was something quite real, and you must become aware of these things. Some of your friends are suffering, and it is often a hellish and desperate depression.dancer-feet

To my Christian friends. in, I believe Jesus died for all my sins. He has forgiven me of much evil, I know that will live for eternity (with you). But mental illness is real, and like other illnesses it seldom is caused by evil or Satan. We would never say that diabetics are that way because of the enemy. Now the dark one will surely exploit it, but I think you give him far too much credit if you suggest he was able to initiate it. Satan just doesn’t have the spiritual “voltage.”

So, inspired by my dancing friends, and the Holy Spirit– I will make the choice to dance again. I’m pretty bruised, but I will try to ignore the pain. I would exult in my God, walk in His love, “leaping with joy like calves let out to pasture” (Malachi 4:2.)

“A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out, till he has brought justice through to victory.”

Isaiah 42:3

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Mental Illness Concerns

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As with anything, those of us with mental illness have much to think through. I believe that God will direct us through these issues. And these are not static things. It isn’t “one and your done”– these are ongoing. They never get completely resolved; you must get used to this. The following list is not meant to be exhaustive.

  • Stigma— This is one of the basic hazards that comes with having a mental illness. People will whisper and treat you like a moron, even in church. You’ll need to be thick-skinned. Ask Jesus for his help. He understands what it’s like. At the time some considered him mentally disturbed. You’re in good company.
  • Medications– This will be a stretching time as you must determine what  is best for you, your family and basic functionality. There will be many opinions and many issues that will arise. Your patience will be required (but isn’t it always?) Oh, and booze is not a med. It is your enemy and a real threat to your sanity. Quit now.
  • Church“Not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some” should be our rally spot. We need fellowship.  It is easy to just go it alone, but we will suffer a barrenness which we will see in our hearts. (I’ve chafed at this from time to time.)
  • Therapy— To go or not to go? A good therapist is worth their weight in gold doubloons, but a bad one can be hard to abide. Also, a  Christian may not always be the best for you personally. My current is a unbeliever, but is very respectful regarding my faith.
  • Marriage—  A faithful spouse/friend is key to managing your mental illness. Invite them to your appointments. Talk, listen, talk, listen, talk. and then listen some more.
  • Family— They will feel the brunt of your issues. It is good to be aware of this and adjust to their needs. Above all, don’t flog yourself for your failings. Trust in the Lord to redeem things. Look for ways to love them. (Surprise ice cream does wonders.)
  • Work— Not surprisingly, some employers have little tolerance for your issues, but the law says is that they can’t discriminate against a mental illness. I hope it won’t come down to that.
  • Social/friend-– Finding other mentally ill believers is priceless. When I meet someone who also struggled with severe depression I give them a big hug. We instantly have a comradeship that isn’t easily defined.
  • Pray–Desperate prayers have a tendency to get answered. Start praying for five minutes a day. Pray, not complain. Be real, not religious. Talk with Jesus like he was your best friend. Prayer is the key to making everything work.

We have the joy of combining our discipleship with our illness. This is a formidable task. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit stands ready to give you wisdom. You will discover that its the tiny issues that can really ‘rock your world.’ (And I’m beginning to think that “grittiness” should be added to the fruits of the Holy Spirit?)

The Lord truly will accommodate your illness with His power and grace. He always does this for His children. No one is ever abandoned or forgotten.

There is no circumstance, no trouble, no testing, that can ever touch me until, first of all, it has gone past God and past Christ, one.right through to me. If it has come that far, it has come with a great purpose.” 

— Alan Redpath

These are only some of the areas that are affected by your mental illness. Oh, a wise spouse, pastor, friend, or a therapist can do wonders when things are out of whack.

The spiritual disciplines of prayer and the Word will assist you. Having people pray for you will be a necessity and may provide you relief and restore your sanity. Just remember, some people still remember how to pray.

“And I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns.”

,, Philippians 1:6, NLT

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