If you want your church to be more faithful and effective in ministering to those with mental illness, what can you do besides referring people to the professionals? Here are nine suggestions.
- De-stigmatize. Make a determined effort to rid your church of the stigma and shame associated with mental illness. Talk about it. Acknowledge the struggles of people you’ve known, and your own struggle if applicable. Contact some local organizations to see how churches can better support the mentally ill. And if necessary, repent privately or even publicly for the way your church has handled mental illness.
- Talk publicly about mental illness. When was the last time you mentioned mental illness in a sermon or class? Have you discussed the tough theological questions that mental illness can raise? Is your church a community of imperfect people growing in relationship with a God who is not confused or threatened by our imperfection? Or does your church inadvertently send the message that it’s a place only for the mentally healthy? You can make your church a relevant, accepting place for those who struggle with their mental health by talking openly about it. One note of caution: no “crazy” or “psycho” jokes. Making light of mental illness alienates those who suffer and reinforces the stigma and shame associated with mental illness.
- Encourage relationships and ask questions. I asked my parents, who have had to deal with my mother’s mental illness, what the church has done right in ministering to them. They both focused on the open and genuine relationships they have had. Small groups have been lifelines for them, especially when they have been able to talk openly about their struggles, mention their therapeutic work, and relate their experiences to the Bible.
My parents also mentioned how helpful it is when curious people ask questions, learning about their experiences and seeking common ground. Questions like “what it’s like to be on medication?” or “what’s it like to attend group therapy?” might seem intrusive, but for my mom, they open the door to genuine conversation and provide relief from feelings of isolation. Because these are her everyday experiences, they are easy for her to talk about if someone shows interest.
Genuine and mutual relationships are irreplaceable. Encourage the ministry of honest relationships in your church so that when mental health struggles and crises arise, those who are suffering have friends to walk through the suffering with them.
- Ask what you can do to help. You must be willing to actually help if the individual or family expresses a specific need. People in crisis don’t always know what they need, but sometimes they do and they feel as if no one is available or willing. You may not be a mental health professional, but you can help—organize meal delivery, visit someone in a psychiatric hospital, provide a ride or childcare. Be especially attentive to the people who are caring for or living with a mentally ill person. They may be better able to communicate what’s really going on and what they need, and like anyone who loves and cares for the suffering, they are suffering themselves.
- be present. This sounds simple, but it’s powerful. When an individual is struggling with mental illness, and when the person’s family is in crisis, the earth can feel as if it has come loose from its proper orbit. They need something stable in order to help them keep their faith. A pastor who refuses to abandon a family in crisis powerfully demonstrates that God has not abandoned them either. Make yourself consistently available, even if it’s not clear what else you can do to help.
- Radiate acceptance. Refuse to reject the person or family in crisis. Be the person who represents Christ’s tenacious and bold love, refusing to be driven away by what you don’t understand. Don’t ignore them because you’ve given them a referral to a mental health professional. Like others in crisis, people affected by mental illness need to know you care.
Try to treat them as you would a person who suffers from arthritis or diabetes. Ask questions: Are you managing your illness? Caring for yourself? Is the family healthy? A diagnosis or hospitalization doesn’t change who a person is; it just changes your understanding of what someone needs.
- Draw boundaries and stick to them. Just because someone is mentally ill, you do not need to suspend standards of morality, biblical theology, or respectful behavior in your church community. Overlooking inappropriate behavior or beliefs is destructive to your congregation, and it does no favors for the mentally ill.
Regardless of how they respond to social expectations, mentally ill people do need structure and boundaries to grow in independence, understanding, and management of their illness. They need healthy people around them to give them objective feedback and an example of mental health. Help them pursue and maintain health by insisting on a healthy community around them. Communicate agreed-upon expectations openly and lovingly, and hold to them consistently.
- Know when you are in over your head. Sometimes you need to call in a professional to either handle an immediate crisis or provide long-term care. If you suspect a person in your congregation is struggling with mental illness, refer him or her to a professional counselor or psychiatrist.
Compile and keep a list of trusted professionals and their specialties: from depression to eating disorders to bipolar to schizophrenia. You’ll have a relevant referral at your fingertips when someone in your church needs it.
And obviously if someone in your church is in danger or is endangering another person, call 911. This is not a situation for you or your congregation to handle; it’s a situation for the police. Once everyone is safe, you can move to referrals and pastoral care as appropriate.
- Get help if you’re struggling. If you or a member of your family is struggling with your mental health, seek professional help. You cannot effectively minister to a congregation without addressing your own needs. And your first ministry is to the family God has entrusted to your care.
- In what ways do you see people in your church engaging those with mental illness? How could you encourage healthier relationships that acknowledge the struggles of sufferers without stigmatizing them?
- What would it look like for your church to “radiate acceptance”? That is, what are the characteristics of a church that demonstrates love and acceptance toward the mentally ill?
- Does your church tend to set boundaries that are too strict or too loose on the mentally ill? Why are boundaries important for the mentally ill? How can they be communicated in a loving way?