10 Tips on Embracing People with Mental Illness in the Church

 Note: This is the 5th part in an ongoing series called Beyond Multiethnic, in which we’re talking about ways that we can honor the image of God in diverse people. Please see part 1 for context. Today I'm thrilled to introduce you all to Beccy Adams. Beccy is a psychotherapist, wife, mother of two little ones, and senior leader at her church. She blogs at beccyjoy where she's currently doing a series on "What You Need to Know about Mental Illness."

Thank you Beccy, for helping us think critically about embracing people with mental illness in our churches!

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My heart is naturally geared toward people with mental health struggles. My heart is also geared toward the church and Jesus. Unfortunately these sometimes feel like they exist in two separate universes. People who are mentally ill often feel like aliens at church and the church often gives mixed messages to people with mental illness.

Over the past 8 years I have worked in mental health treatment in a variety of settings and roles. I’ve worked in a children’s shelter, drug treatment facility, autism therapy center, in homes, and in schools. I am currently a psychotherapist at a small private practice. During these years I’ve been privileged to enter into hundreds of people’s stories; some whose mental health has a minor impact on their lives, others whose lives are consumed with distress and dysfunction.

In my work, I’ve discovered a few recurring themes when subjects of faith and Christianity are broached. These are the types of statements I have grown accustomed to hearing at work:

"I thought I was a Christian, but I still feel bad so I must be doing something wrong."

"I can’t be loved by God or His people until I get better."

"This is just a spiritual battle, I need to put my trust in Jesus instead of in medications or therapies" (I wish I could say I know of times this one has gone well, but I can’t).

"People at church say nice things to me,  but their body language says something else."

"I confided in someone at church about my struggles and they said I just need to pray harder."

"I had friends at church until they realized that I wasn’t getting better… then they all got tired of me."

"I don’t want to become friends with anyone at church because I don’t want to be a burden to them."

In my church life, I have also discovered a few recurring themes when subjects of mental illness are broached. These are the types of statements I have grown accustomed to hearing at church:

 "I used to think he was cool, until he went psycho."

"I’m not even kidding, she is like for real crazy."

"There’s something not right in his head. He scares me."

"It’s all an act for attention and I’m not going to fall for it."

"If she needs more help, she needs to take responsibility for getting it."

A member of my extended family grew up in a loving and prayer filled Christian home. He was friendly, adventurous, thoughtful, intelligent, funny, and kind. He also suffered from a dark depression.  To the shock and horror of all of his family and friends he took his own life at age 25.

The ugly truth is that for some people, life does not feel worth living. People with serious and persistent mental illnesses (SPMI) live an average of 20 years less than the general population. These are people who matter to God and should matter to the church.

I want to be clear that I am not trying to shame or condemn the church. I believe that the church intends to be kind, loving and inclusive to all people but I want to suggest that we could be better about loving our brothers and sisters with mental illnesses. Here are a few thoughts on how we can make a better effort:

1. Break Isolation - Meet them where they are: Usually when people say this, they mean it figuratively. I mean it literally, as in go to their home. Mental health symptoms like depression, anxiety, phobias, paranoia, psychosis and panic attacks can prevent people from leaving their homes. The isolation and inactivity that result from staying home increase mental health symptoms. Increased mental health symptoms prevent people from leaving their homes. I’ve heard someone say “It’s like being trapped in hell.” Imagine if the people stuck in this cycle could easily request that someone from their church visit, serve communion, or pray with them in their homes. Jesus descended into Hell for three days for us; maybe we could go to someone’s house.

2. Don’t Be Scared: The media would like to have us believe that people with mental illness are creepy, violent, stalkers or serial killers. These types of people are statistical anomalies and I would argue that isolation is what brings people to this level of dysfunction. True representations of the mentally ill do not make good news stories. I’ve never turned on the TV and heard: “This just in… Joe hasn’t left his apartment in a month. He stayed in his bed all day. He still feels sad and paranoid and no one from his church came to visit.”

3. Break the stigma- Encourage people to follow their prescribed treatment plan: The research shows that a combination of therapy and prescribed medications works better than one of these treatments alone to significantly reduce mental health symptoms and increase the likelihood of complete recovery. Sometimes people get the impression that receiving therapy is a sign of spiritual weakness and taking psychiatric medications means they failed. Sometimes people wait for their pastors and leaders to give them permission to get the help they need- let’s give it to them.

4. Help people choose the appropriate level of care: Many people who are experiencing mental health problems in the church want to talk to a pastor, church leader or friend instead of a licensed and trained mental health professional. Sometimes this is appropriate and adequate. Sometimes it is not and it only serves to overwhelm and traumatize the unprepared, well-meaning church volunteer.

5. Listen and validate: I’ve worked with many clients who engage in self injurious behavior. While there are a variety of reasons people intentionally harm themselves, one common reason is that they want someone to see them and notice their pain. Listening and validating isn’t about finding a solution or agreeing with the person, it’s about saying, “I see you and I hear you. You aren’t wrong to feel how you feel.” When people truly feel heard, they don’t have to keep finding ways to ask to be heard.

6. Relate, but don’t over-relate: Get in touch with your own mental health short comings. If you don’t know what they are, ask someone close to you. The truth is you (yes you) probably meet criteria for some kind of diagnosis. If we realize that we are all a little “messed up” we can more easily connect with others. However, when you over-relate by saying “we all feel that way sometimes” it can belittle something that is not little.

7. Talk about it, don’t joke about it: By refusing to talk about mental health we are sending the message that it is too shameful to even talk about. The silence on the topic however doesn’t exist when people are making jokes about voices in our heads, OCD, ADD, wanting to shoot ourselves and “crazy people.” Let’s trade our offensive jokes for genuine curiosity, interest and care.

8. Clothe yourself in gentleness, but not kid gloves. Let your gentleness be evident to all, don’t be harsh, and all that stuff. But a mental illness is not an excuse for bad behavior. Being nice isn’t always helpful. If you love someone, don’t let them self-destruct or socially destruct.

9. Don’t tell people to ‘suck it up’: ‘Suck it up’ is code for ‘don’t bother me with your problems’ which is code for ‘pretend nothing is wrong.’ It is hurtful, ineffective and detrimental.

10. Realize what you are missing: By keeping people with mental illness at a distance, you might be missing out on refreshing honesty, a unique and valuable perspective, the wisdom of a person who has suffered and many more hidden treasures.

There is a gap that is keeping people with mental illness feeling isolated from the church. Galations 6:2 says to “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” Mental illness is a heavy burden. Let’s share the load.