Organizing The Mental Illness Disconnect In The Church

Mental Health Grace Alliance April 12, 2015

Recently, I had the honor to sit on a panel for a community luncheon to discuss mental health and the church (spear headed by Baylor Social Work Graduate students John David and Anna Chatham). The goal was to build a strong conversation and network … it was a great success and we’re now in process connecting with another great church in our city that believes more can be done!

Though I cannot capture the whole conversation of our luncheon in this short article, however the questions prepared by John and Anna articulates what many in the church are asking. For the larger audience and to keep the conversation going, I thought it would be helpful to elaborate on three of their questions.

1. In your experience, whether personal or professional, what are some challenges that people with mental illness face in regards to their life in the congregation?

There are three specific challenges I see.

a) The Fear of Stigma. Without a healthy dialogue happening within the church, mental illness remains spiritualized as a weakness of faith, sin, and demonic oppression, which causes people to become isolated within the congregation as, what I call, “The Silent Sufferer.” Having a mental health challenge has a negative impact affecting the person’s thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. Without that healthy understanding of mental illness, the church leader often defaults to biblical teachings where the person’s symptoms often look like the outcomes of sin, lazy faith issues described in Proverbs, and demonic oppression (the extreme unexplainable). The problem is they don’t know to go past the default mode.

b) Misunderstood with Poor Counsel. If the individual does open up about their mental health challenges, because of the above spiritual stigma and misconceptions, many are given poor counsel that reinforce spiritual weakness, failure in God, and worsening their overall condition.

A classic misconception is equating the need for medication as a sign of weak faith. Another associates difficult mental illness symptoms as a “spiritual attack” from demonic forces and they must engage in “spiritual warfare” to “resist the devil” by quoting scripture, intercessory prayer to rebuke the “enemy,” and just “trust God.” These only reinforce anxiety and bring about spiritual exhaustion. There is a much better way through comfort and rest … in Christ!

c) Triggering Environments and Church Guilt. Many churches today are highly stimulating environments with loud worship, dynamic lights, intense or exhorting preaching styles, and large crowds. While many enjoy this inspirational environment, the person with a mental illness can be over stimulated triggering anxiety and other symptoms. In addition, many can misperceive and filter the sermon through their various symptoms leaving them uncomfortable and feeling condemned to do more works for God in order to “heal their issues” … which is their symptoms. Church becomes overwhelming and then the guilt for not able to handle or go to church settles in.

Here’s what happens. I have heard many stories of having panic attacks in the church parking lot or just stepping into the lobby. Others triggered by the sermon get up and leave. In fact, I told one individual if he had a hard time with the sermon to call me and we would do a simple bible study. He ended up calling the next Sunday. Then, another person over stimulated from the church service always went home feeling agitated. They later discovered the service was triggering their anxiety. The guilt then settles in, “I’m a failure because I can’t even enjoy church.”

“When we try to make mental illness a spiritual issue we will always reinforce stigma”
2. Some of the challenge seems to be around how different people perceive and define mental illness. While some may see it as a mental (physical) condition, others attribute it to sin or to other spiritual principles. How do you personally and professionally make sense of mental illness? Do you think that mental illness has any spiritual connection?

We have to remember that we do not first look at mental illness … we have to look at the person. This is how God looks at us … with delight and satisfaction, no matter the “illness.” If we see a God requiring us to get our lives in order, we will miss the heart of answering this question. He would do anything to let us know we are loved, with or without a mental illness, because every life is precious to Him … thus Jesus’ death on a cross is His satisfied love for us all.

If you want to know the answer to this question … ask any parent with a child living with a disability or “illness” how they feel about their child. You will probably see pure love and joy expressed in tears, smiles, and a gentle voice. You will hear something so simple, peaceful, and a beautiful confidence. You will see a valid picture of the will and heart of God. You will see the spiritual connection!

We are all God’s creation (Colossians 1.16, Ephesians 2.10) and that makes us all spiritual. In Christ we are His children through faith (Galatians 3.26) and that makes us spiritual. So, the pastor who is taking blood pressure medication – is that spiritual? A dear friend, father, and faithful man in the Lord died of cancer – was that spiritual? In those cases, much like the parent of a child with a disability or “illness,” we see after God’s heart for the man, not the “illness.” I choose to see mental illness how my Father in Heaven sees it … how He wants to respond with hope … that’s the spiritual connection.

When we try to make mental illness a spiritual issue we will always reinforce stigma, falsely create dogmatic and superficial “spiritual” answers which then everyone get’s boxed into … or for some, they get cornered. The problem is that spiritual stigma reinforces a broken heart … a broken hope. The person struggling with a mental illness has a story and a journey they are on with God’s lovingkindness, grace, and mercy. Mental illness doesn’t intimidate God. Thus, mental illness doesn’t define them, God does. That’s the spiritual connection.

3. In your opinion, what are practical things that congregations can do to appropriately respond to people struggling with mental illness?

This is really simple and I have written a blog to help understand how the church can be the answer for mental illness. In basic, the three elements the church can do is start moving towards more simple and adequate Education, Training, and simple Community Support.

At a recent training for a Chinese church I asked, “If you had one week to help break the stigma in the church … what would you do?” A young adult leader said, “I would get the conversation started, we need to start talking about this in a way we can all understand.”

Many do not know how to understand mental illness, therefore they do not know how to talk aobut it. We have to get the conversation started.

So the question to you is … How and where can you get the conversation started in your church?

Reimagine mental illness and the church!

Joe Padilla | CEO and Founder The Grace Alliance

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