Note: This article is excerpted from Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church's Mission.
If counselors, social workers and psychiatrists are well equipped to treat people with mental illness and to help them manage and even heal, why is people's experience in the church so important?
Because God cares deeply about the sick and marginalized.
He judged the people of Israel harshly because they "deprive the poor of justice and deny the rights of the needy among my people. They prey on widows and take advantage of orphans" (Isaiah 10:2, NLT). Who is more needy than people suffering from disorders that distort their perceptions of reality itself?
The church matters because Jesus said he came to bring good news to the poor: "He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released, that the blind will see, that the oppressed will be set free, and that the time of the Lord's favor has come" (Luke 4:18-19, NLT). Then he sent out his apostles with instructions to "heal the sick, raise the dead, cure those with leprosy, and cast out demons. Give as freely as you have received!" (Matthew 10:8, NLT).
The church matters because Jesus said, "God blesses those who are poor and realize their need for him, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs" (Matthew 5:3, NLT). Who is more aware of their daily need for God than the depressed, anxiety ridden, befuddled, lonely, and emotionally unstable among us? God sees these people, loves them, calls them to him, and calls us to love them.
The church matters because it is the first place many people go when they need help of all kinds, including help with symptoms of mental illness.
And it matters because it represents God and is equipped by the Holy Spirit to pour out Jesus' love on this world. And when someone is rejected, ignored, or marginalized by the church—representatives of God—they feel rejected by God.
Providing a Safe Place
The church also matters because it is a powerful instrument against darkness in the hands of a God who loves the light. The church can and does make a difference. While my family's church didn't really reach out to us, meet our needs, address our questions, or assure us it was safe to be the floundering people we were in the midst of Mom's struggle with schizophrenia, at the same time our church and youth group were my lifeline. Literally. God used them to keep me from life-ending despair. I never believed God had abandoned me, and the church provided a sane place to grow up spiritually. God used the church powerfully in my life to redeem the challenge of growing up in the shadow of schizophrenia.
And I'm not the only one.
My sister Cheryl said, "I felt like church was a haven where I was safe, and that God was my only true comfort. Church and youth group were an escape where we had fun, removed from the weird life at home, and could laugh, think about normal things, feel a part of something good and feel safe since there was no safety at home."
Scott agrees: "My faith has been key for me all through these years of mom's illness. My own personal convictions as well as sermons, Bible studies, and theological classes have been very important to give me the strength I needed to live through this experience."
For one girl, the church was literally a lifesaver, providing not only spiritual but also physical sustenance. Church was where she often got food as a child.
When Monica's daughter was in residential treatment, a woman at church told her she and her family were praying for her daughter every day. Their family had a Christmas tradition of drawing a name, keeping it on their table, and praying every day for that person. That year they had drawn her daughter's name. This woman had no idea that Monica's daughter was in treatment or even that she wasn't living at home. When Monica shared with her all that was going on, she became a supportive, understanding and kind friend in the church.
Bob was diagnosed with bipolar disorder as an adult and was blessed by his church's response. "Even though I had to recognize that I had an illness," he said, "and that the illness could be treated, I still felt that there was some sort of purpose in all of this. It wasn't just an accident that I got a disease and I'm getting medication and I go see my therapist every once in a while. But I really had a sense that there was something I was supposed to do with it."
Bob often talked with his associate pastor about the situation, and three years after he became stable, she asked him to start a support group and community for people with bipolar disorder and their families. The church now ministers regularly to 400 people through this group, and in 11 years it has reached around 1,500.
The Power of Community
A psychologist I talked to spoke of clients who have felt embraced by churches and for whom churches have been their primary communities and sources of assistance. Typically this has happened because a small group or a few people, rather than a church body as a whole, have reached out and dealt kindly with their struggling brothers and sisters. The psychologist said, "The theme that tends to come up is connecting with a few people who have accepted them or understood them, or that they felt like they could be with and communicate with. They'll talk about the church they attend, but they really gravitate toward talking about specific individuals or groups who have embraced them as their places of support."
Marlena's father had been shunned by his church. But when he borrowed and wrecked Marlena's car, her church offered her critical support. "Thankfully, I was able to share openly about what I was going through," she said. "I had to. I couldn't survive without the prayer and emotional support I received from my church family and coworkers at the Christian university where I work."
One woman who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder had tremendous support from her church. A counselor worked with her to help her learn how to ask for help and feel okay about it. People would come and sit with her so she wouldn't feel alone when she was in the depressive stage. People would bring her coffee while her husband was at work and help her care for her children, one of whom had special needs. They prayed with and for her and her family. She came to realize she needs help, and it's not just about therapy and medication—it's about the support of the body of believers. Their support has made a lifesaving difference for her and her family.
Stories like these remind me how critical the church's role is in bringing light to the world around us. They also give me hope. There is much the church can do to shine acceptance on and facilitate healthy lives for people with mental illness. And it can start with your small group.