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

*******

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

 

cropped-christiangraffiti1 (1)

‘A Drowning Kind of Despair’

painting of a person swimming underwater
Photo by Evelyn on Pexels.com
“For we do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, of our trouble which came to us in Asia: that we were burdened beyond measure, above strength, so that we despaired even of life.

   2 Corinthians 1:8

“…we should all fortify ourselves against the dark hours of depression by cultivating a deep distrust of the certainties of despair. Despair is relentless in the certainties of its pessimism. But we have seen again and again, from our own experience and others’, that absolute statements of hopelessness that we make in the dark are notoriously unreliable. Our dark certainties are not sureties.”

John Piper

It is my ‘deliberateness’, and not my impulsiveness that scares me.   I know ‘despair’.  I know what it is like to be ‘backed into a corner’ and then feel the empty desperation of being lost.  But you must understand, there can be a weird seductiveness to ‘being lost’, a ‘strange sort of nobility’, a twisted honor, when it comes to despair.

Piper talks about the ‘dark certainties’ of knowing you are lost.  Now this really seems rather bizarre, that people could do this intentionally, without duress.  But I’m afraid to tell you that it happens all the time.  Despair is chosen over the option of life. This is the ‘lostness’ of the race of Adam.

Pop culture has given us words, albeit in a rather simplistic form.  I just happened to think right now of an old AC/DC  song, ‘Highway to Hell‘.  The lyrics are pretty basic, very simple, but the lead singer seems to really have a chronically, decided dedication to being one of the irretrievably lost.  He formats a ‘certain glory’ to being part of the damned.  This is a simplistic approach to the next stop– a more advanced case of stark-white despair, suicide. (We can call this ‘spiritual hubris,’ or even, “sex, drugs, and rock-n-rollism.”)

In examining the striated world of despair, we come to the interesting place where our foolishness combined with our arrogance produces a decision to be lost.  Of course, our fear of God must be extracted from the situation.  But for the eager candidate for despair, this is not an insurmountable problem.

Escaping this ‘drowning despair’ we must first dethrone our right to personal sovereignty.  And secondly, we need to grab the concept that God’s grace has an ultimate power that supersedes our notions of a ‘deserved’ love.  (It is completely undeserved).  We must believe that somehow, someway God chooses us out of a pile, a pile of the worst and ugliest.  And somehow, He delights in doing this, and after all, He is the Lord.

We are meant to be the people of redemptive hope. 

Because of our problems, our addictions, we must clearly renounce our evil folly of despair.  These are the issues that make us vulnerable.  There is a seductiveness to ‘giving up’ and taking up the sin of despair.  There can be a ‘weird romance’ that lures those who ‘walk out lostness’.  We are pulled into a vortex of an exotic melancholy with a dash of fatalism, which makes it reasonable and weirdly heroic in some perverse way.

But is it not even more heroic to live in hope?

“Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me?  Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and 6 my God. My soul is downcast within me; therefore I will remember you.”

Psalm 42:5-6

aabryscript

 

cropped-cropped-christiangraffiti1-3.jpg

From a Mental Hospital Ward, [Crushed]

3 For the enemy has pursued my soul; he has crushed my life to the ground; he has made me sit in darkness like those long dead.”

Psalm 143:3

Some time ago,  I was hospitalized for my mental illness. (Actually seven times.) And though each time was bitter, but the Lord carried me.  They would take from me my shoelaces, and belts, and fingernail clippers.  Basically, I was stripped of everything, anything that I might use to harm myself. But I was creative, I took a clock off the wall and rolled it in a blanket,  I smashed it and used the shards of glass to cut my wrists.The nurses were exceptionally observant, and within moments they intervened.

I had already been stripped, searched, and then brought into a ward full of very sick people.  Much of all of this is a terrible glazed blur.  There was a real awareness of unreality.  I was quite confused, and it would take several weeks before I could reconnect.  Things were no longer ‘reasonable’ and I could discern nothing.  But I didn’t know I was so confused (but I did suspect it). The staff were quite aware and accommodating.  They let me be, so time could take care of the rest. I needed to unravel things  

Besides, Jesus knew exactly where I was if I didn’t.

Days rolled by, quite slowly.  The tedium of a mental hospital is the worst— much more difficult than jail or prison.  You walk in a very limited corridor, back and forth.  You wait for your shrink, and wait, and wait.  You pace, and pace. You pray, stupidly.  The other patients were equally disturbed.  There was a great variety among them.  One guy would urinate in any corner. Once he jumped up on the nurses station, and took a “whizz.” It was hysterical.  He almost shorted out their computer.

In all of this, there was a very bleak and strange awareness, of being incredibly ‘detached,’ and only remotely aware that something was not right with me.  I tried to get well, but I was mentally lost.  I paced, and I remained confused.  I was most definitely in an ugly place.  Desperate and increasingly bewildered, I knew I had no place to go.  A fine place for someone who used to pastor, and teach at a Bible college.

If you have been in this place, you will recognize the ‘lostness’ of being on a ward of a mental hospital. It is confusion mixed with despair,  and without a part of very strong drugs, and there is nothing you can do to be released.  And really until you come to this fact, they will never let you go.  They wait for you to snap out of your confusion, unfortunately that takes time. Sometimes many weeks and whole months. Sometimes never.

It’s worse when you have a family.  In my case it was my wife, and two small children.  This at times, would twist my heart.  I would get a very short phone call, once a week.  But this was quite difficult.  I gained very little from those calls, and I found myself quite disturbed after each call.  Being on this ward tinged me completely. It was like being dipped into darkness.  I was very much affected.  Now on the outside, I admit I was quite disturbed, but at the time I honestly did not understand a way out.

Dear friend, having a mental illness is cruel and disturbing.  And being committed to a mental hospital is a desperate thing.  Having passed through its locked doors is something you will never forget.  The way I figure these seven hospitalizations have stolen over six months of my life. Its work is irrevocable, its fingerprints will be on your life, for as long as you live.  But God will bring good out of this. This I know.

“Do not gloat over me, my enemy!
    Though I have fallen, I will rise.
Though I sit in darkness,
    the Lord will be my light.”

Micah 7:8

bry-signat (1)

cropped-christiangraffiti1.jpg

&