Most people don't talk much about mental illness. And because of this silence, many of us have the misconception that mental illness is something rare, something that happens to unusual people at the margins of society.
We couldn't be more wrong. Every year in the United States, more than 25 percent of adults suffer from a diagnosable mental illness. These afflictions include serious and chronic diseases like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, as well as more common problems like depression and anxiety disorders—and everything in between.
Most church leaders have encountered mental illness in their churches. When people seek help for mental illness, 25 percent of them go first to the church. This is higher than the percentage of people who go to psychiatrists and general medical doctors. Many people are looking to the church for help, and many church leaders don't know how to help.
Small-group leaders are in a unique position because they minister so closely to a few people. When mental illness affects someone in a small group, either personally or as a family issue, that person brings a burden to every meeting. Small-group leaders and members may not know how to help and may respond in ways that are counterproductive. Here are some productive ways you can respond:
Acknowledge your fears. Many of our first reactions to mental illness are based in fear, either because we see our own potential reflected in people with mental illness, because we believe people with mental illness are inherently violent (which is not true), or because we're nervous about uncomfortable conversations or situations we don't know how to handle. It's important to acknowledge these fears and to learn to separate legitimate fear from irrational fear.
Recognize and embrace the truth that people with mental illness are people created in the image of God, loved and valuable. People with mental illness are no less important than others, and people with symptoms are no less valuable than when they're not experiencing symptoms. This attitude is an important starting point for ministry.
Foster a culture of compassion and authenticity in your group. Set the example so it becomes normal for people to be real about what they're experiencing, even when that truth is not pretty. This doesn't have to mean your group is obsessed with sharing the worst about themselves with no regard for social consequences; this can be modeled in a healthy and redemptive way. Neither does it have to mean giving people an excuse to stay where they are and refuse to grow. It's just a matter of giving people the chance to be honest about who they are and the circumstances of their lives. This will go a long way toward allowing people affected by mental illness to feel less marginalized.
Watch your response. If a person announces he or she has a mental disorder, don't act shocked, try to give them answers about why they are suffering, or try to solve the problem for them. Accept the news as you would an announcement that someone has a heart condition or a back injury. A loving and emotionally even response will show acceptance and maturity that mental illness is not always met with.
Care for them. Think about what your group is already equipped to do for someone in crisis or suffering from other kinds of sickness, and do that same kind of practical ministry: bring meals, care for their children, visit them in the hospital, and visit them at home if you're welcome. Also realize that unlike some other medical conditions, mental illness is often chronic or repetitive. So the crisis might repeat itself, and you may need to provide this kind of support again. You may even need to help on an ongoing basis for a matter of years. It's important to have appropriate expectations and to be patient with afflicted people and their families.