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.