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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Notice Leah’s Eyes, [Handicaps]

Portait of woman wearing scarf with eyes closed Stuck in the wonderful convolutions of scripture we can start a great study of Leah and her sister Rachel. These two daughters of Laban have become Jacob’s wives.

Now, we may question this polygamy when all we know is monogamy. These kind of decisions may be criticized and even outright challenged, but we will change nothing (and does it really matter)?

Jacob longs for Rachel. She is his “soul mate” and because he is so much in love, the customs and technicalities of the day somehow get by him. Because of this, he will have to take on Laban’s subtle trickery, where daughters get exchanged, and he must sort out who is who. Laban’s deception really creates a crisis. But it seems Jacob just rolls with it. I suppose deception has always been Jacob’s strong suit. (But when a deceiver gets deceived, that can’t be all bad, I suppose).

Jacob is so in love with Rachel that he works for seven years for the right to marry her. This may be a bit outrageous. But we really must weigh these issues. I believe Jacob really is a monogamist at heart (shh… don’t tell him). He can only see that one girl that he is crazy about, his true love, Rachel. But it’s Leah that I think about. Her own issues are unique. Genesis 29 explains it a bit cryptically,

“Leah’s eyes were weak, but Rachel was beautiful in form and appearance.” 

Genesis 29:17

I must tell you that there is confusion by commentators about the “weak eyes.” Some take it literally (as in, she in very “near-sighted,”) others who look at the original Hebrew find the words to be a bit looser and vague. They think that this is a polite way of saying she really wasn’t pretty. IDK, but I think I can gain from either interpretation.

In the long view, Leah would birth four patriarchs for Israel. But she would struggle with jealousy over her younger sister’s beauty and favor. Her pain was real, and she would hurt deeply over this.

I think I may understand Leah. She is wounded, and life requires that she live as unwanted. She sticks out as a woman of tragedy and broken hopes and dreams. She will always live as a reject. At best, she will always be a distant second, and perhaps a bit scorned and neglected for this.

I so love Leah and I do understand her. Her life is a long tragedy and very full of sadness. For the next 30-40 years she will always be a cast-off, someone who has been broken on life’s hard wheel. I look at her with a painful bit of understanding. She reminds me of being a struggler and a survivor. Her sad life is comparable to us who have to fight so hard over our own illness or handicap.

I suppose its “Leah’s eyes” that catch me. I have no idea what the issue was. But I know that she was weak, and challenged by this terrible weakness. I understand this. My own life has been “topsy-turvy” and a really hard struggle. Somehow it seems we must work through way too much. It doesn’t seem fair. But than again, we are the ones who must drink our adversity straight; and the ones who get to know special comfort.

For those of you who are confined to a ‘chair,’ and the others who must deal with mental illness. Leah should be our hero.

Those who have been betrayed by addiction, or who have felt rejected through a bitter divorce. Leah speaks to us. For she is for every loser and for failures of all stripes. But through all of our “set-backs” and messes, we must realize that God does love us– even as we weep.

We may have “Leah’s eyes,” but we also have His grace.

One more thought that might be relevant:

“When you encounter difficulties and contradictions, do not try to break them, but bend them with gentleness and time.”

–Francis de Sales

 

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Blood in the Water

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It’s a fact. Biologists tell us that sharks can smell blood from 2-3 miles away. They follow their noses to the place where they sense it. They have an ‘attack mechanism’ to anything that is vulnerable. Blood acts as a trigger inside their brains. Occasionally dozens of sharks attack in a feeding frenzy that is pretty horrific.

Almost 40 years in the Church has taught me that sharks aren’t the only ones that turn on the wounded.

The Church was supposed to be a safe and a healing place. This is what the Holy Spirit wants. That isn’t always the case. As believers in Jrsus we should of done better.

Someone fails, another falters. Sin is uncovered and everyone takes cover. Many people who could have been restored are instead trampled down.   There are many who would rather ‘kick’ than pray. Unfortunately there is always a sharp escalation and personal attack  that often creates even more blood in the water.

There are many who bleed. Those with a mental illness, or confined to a wheelchair, or with Downs Syndrome are the first that come to mind. The developmentally disabled, the drunk, the addict, the divorced, the adulterer, the homosexual, and the poor, the ex-con are just several kinds of people that regularly get hurt in our churches.

“God blesses those who are merciful,
    for they will be shown mercy.”

Matthew 5:7, NLT

Mercy is what God extends to people who don’t deserve any. Failure to understand God’s deep penchant for mercy is the first step into religious confusion. Keep in mind that the Prodigal’s older brother refused to party with the forgiven son. How terribly sad.

In theory, we agree. We find tremendous inspiration when this verse is read. But the noble feelings do not always translate well into dedicated action. I have come to see that I must consciously press this into action. I must actively show mercy for the healing of others– and to protect my own heart.

The Kingdom of God is specifically designed for losers; it exists for the sick, the stumbler and the sinner.

The Great Physician has come for the sick– and not so much for the healthy. He loves each of us, but cares in different ways. He tailors His grace to fit our sin.

If there is blood in the water, let’s turn it up a notch, and show special mercy for those who are struggling. Let us be kinder than we have to be. If we err— let us always err on the side of mercy and kindness.

Father, please help me be full of mercy as I touch those who are in pain. I ask that you would make me sensitive and alert to each one on this path. –Amen.

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