Facing mental illness is not an easy process. Regardless of how informed we are, this process is not easy. Trying to walk this difficult journey by yourself only makes it harder. Often, in the arena of mental illness, what the church has to offer are not superior answers—if the problem is biological or environmental, the church should provide very similar advice as our secular friends in the mental health field.
While the initial guidance the church provides would, in many cases, be the same, the church should always provide a superior context of living out those answers—a sphere of relationships where everyone acknowledges we are broken people in need of redemption, thereby, negating the stigma that makes overcoming these struggles so painfully isolating. Counseling is never merely principles and suggestions; it is also a context that facilitates a journey.
That is the ideal; a stigma-free, redemptive community. But the question remains, “How do we produce more of that reality in our churches?” Unfortunately, as Amy Simpson says in her book Troubled Minds, mental illness is often the “no-casserole illness” in Christian circles; a form of suffering from which the church, uncharacteristically, moves away from suffering people instead of towards them.
One of the reasons we move away instead of towards people is confusion and uncertainty about what we should do. When we don't have good answers, it is often easier to just avoid the people who generate the questions. It is unlikely the church will offer the unique care of a redemptive community if its people are uninformed about and intimidated by mental illness.
A particular individual or church does not have to be able to do everything in order to do some very significant things powerfully well. Consider the example of someone in need of knee surgery. There is a surgeon who repairs the ligament; a physical therapist who helps the individual regain a full range of motion; family and friends who care for day-to-day needs and provide encouragement; and a physician who oversees the pain medicine management. A similar set of roles can exist in the struggle with mental illness.
This metaphor is not meant to imply that the church only plays the “friends and family” role. A given church, pastor or friend may be well-equipped to provide various levels of intensive soul care. But it is their responsibility to know the limits of their ability to help and be willing to invite other members on the care team with needed, supplemental expertise.
With that in mind, let’s consider many things that the church—as a corporate entity or through its personal relationships—is uniquely equipped to do. Many of these functions have little-to-no secular alternative; ongoing gatherings of adults for mutual encouragement and instruction are rare in our culture.
The church, corporately or through individuals, can:
1. Teach a balanced view of mental illness as a part of an ongoing education process. A church has many venues through which this education can occur. Mental health does not need to be the “focal point of the church” in order for the church to effectively disciple people in the care of their interconnected mind, soul, and body.
- Sermon Illustrations: Speaking of depression, anxiety, trauma, addiction, and other struggles in an informed, unstigmatized way will go a long way toward giving people the emotional freedom to talk about their struggle with friends and seek the help they need.
- Testimonies: Someone sharing their story has a powerful influence on any group’s culture. As someone tells their story of wrestling with mental illness they should (a) speak of how personal faith, a community of care, wise care of their body, and counseling played a role in their recovery; and (b) clarify that this is their personal story and not necessarily the map of how God guides every person with a similar struggle in their pursuit of hope and wholeness.
- Follow Up Blogs: A blog that follows up on a sermon or testimony can be a great way to connect people who still prefer to remain anonymous with helpful resources. The ultimate goal is to create an open community of care, but the process may involve facilitating many smaller steps in that direction. Here’s an example.
- Adult Education Classes or Conferences: There are a growing number of excellent Christian books on various types of mental illness. These classes or events can simultaneously comfort and equip. Having classes like this communicates that your church is a “safe place” for these conversations and that these topics are a relevant part of living a God-honoring life.
- Support Groups: While a class or event is educational (over-viewing a subject), a support group is therapeutic (taking someone on a journey). While support groups can create cliques within a church, they can also provide a context for a greater transparency as a next step toward more general authenticity. When starting these groups, a church would want to think through how to prevent a support group from becoming someone’s long-term community and, thereby, inadvertently reinforcing their struggle as their identity.
As you can see in the examples above, a church is a unique context for allowing people to become progressively known, instructed, and loved. Where else in our culture could each of these levels of education and connection be provided within a context of ongoing community?
2. Befriend those who are struggling with mental illness with multiple people so no one person carries the full weight of responsibility. We often fail to realize that no professional qualifications are required to be a friend. As Amy Simpson in Trouble Minds wrote, “When churches have antibiotic-like expectations for mental health treatment, they communicate, ‘go get treated, then you can come back and you can be a growing Christian with us.’”
3. Have a relationship that includes but transcends the struggle with mental illness. In a purely professional setting, a struggle with mental illness is why an individual is known and cared for. This adds to the stigma and results in a mindset that says I have to be “all better” to be known authentically. With a professional counselor or recovery group if you get better, you “graduate” from having people who know and care for you.
4. Help people sort their struggles into categories of sin, suffering, and identity which can be caused by biology, environment, or choice. Emotional unrest and embarrassment make it difficult to sort out how to best categorize struggles. One of the main goals for this presentation is to equip people for these conversations. The more these conversations can be had effectively in natural relationships the earlier people will receive care, the longer they will stick with their care, and less ashamed they will be to embrace the care God wants for them.
5. Attend a counseling session with your friend, take notes, gain an understanding of their struggle, and serve as an echo of key truths or practices recommended by the counselor. This would require the permission of your friend and the cooperation of the counselor. But many counselors are willing to cooperate with this kind of counseling-advocate model, and it can greatly enhance both the short-term and long-term effectiveness of counseling.
This list is not exhaustive. Instead, it is meant to be the beginning of a brainstorming exercise. But there is a danger in thinking through what the church could do: our personal initiative gets lost in the corporate possibilities. For instance, we think “the church ought to mentor underprivileged students,” but we don’t take the step of volunteering at the nearest school.
As you brainstorm possibilities, I would encourage you not to begin with programs your church could run or staff position that could be filled. Instead, begin with, “What conversations could I have about this material with someone I care about?” It may be as simple as following up on something they shared with you or seeking their help in sorting through a struggle you’ve not talked about.
Undoubtedly, mental illness is a difficult subject to address because of its complexity and highly personal nature. Everyone is affected by mental illness; either personally or someone they love. As a result, it is a subject that must be discussed and addressed in the church. Let’s not let our silence hurt people by leaving them to struggle in isolation.