[special]Note: This guest contribution by Amy Simpson is an excerpt from her book, Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission.[/special]
If you want to help your church be more faithful and effective in ministering to those with mental illness and overcoming its related stigmas, what do you do? How can churches help, besides referring people to professionals?
Ready or not, the church is the first place many people go when they are in crisis. And if they end up in a counselor’s office, sometimes counselors are sending people back to their churches for complementary spiritual and pastoral help. Based on my research, very few churches are ready to offer this kind of help. All of them should be equipped to offer at least some basics. Here are several things churches can do, ranked in order from what I perceive as most basic to most complex.
1. 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. Overcome your own fears and prejudices; your suffering or your family member’s suffering is not cause for shame. Seek answers to your theological questions. Facing a mental illness doesn’t have to destroy your faith. On the contrary, it’s more evidence of biblical truth: our fallen world and the creation that groans under the weight of our sin.
2. Tell your own story.
If you or someone you love has struggled with mental health, talk about your experience. One pastor told other pastors, “Be vulnerable from the pulpit. Be as vulnerable as you possibly can about your own hang-ups and your own weaknesses. If the lead communicator of God’s Word is vulnerable about his or her brokenness, it creates an atmosphere where everybody can be honest about their brokenness.” And what is the church if not a place where everyone can be honest about brokenness? What are grace and healing worth if no one needs them?
3. Get educated.
Educate yourself. Unless your congregation consists of mannequins or life-size cardboard cutouts, you can’t afford to be clueless about mental illness. You need to understand the people you’re ministering to and the types of problems they might have. It’s also important to have a basic understanding of the differences between various types of disorders and some of the indications to watch for.
Make a determined and intentional 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.
5. Talk about mental illness.
In my conversations with them, some pastors talked about the importance of avoiding labels and keeping secrets to keep from stigmatizing people in their congregations. While it is important to honor individuals (and the law) by keeping medical information private, we can discuss mental illness openly. This kind of healthy openness is what we need. The hush-hush approach actually reinforces and lends credibility to the stigma by suggesting that mental illness is something to be ashamed of.
6. Encourage relationships.
When I asked my parents what the church has done right in ministering to them, they both focused on the open and genuine relationships they have had with a handful of people in the church. Questions about what it’s like to be on medication or attend group therapy might seem intrusive, but for my mom, they open the door to genuine conversation with people 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.
7. Ask what you can do to help.
You may not be a mental health professional, but that doesn’t mean you can’t help. 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.
8. Be present.
This sounds simple, and “ministry of presence” might be cliché, but it’s powerful. When an individual is struggling with mental illness, and when that person’s family is in crisis, the earth can feel as if it has torn loose from its orbit. People need something stable to help them keep their bearings, and they may need you to help them keep their faith. A Christian leader or friend who refuses to abandon a family in crisis may be a powerful symbol of the truth that God has not abandoned them either.
9. Radiate acceptance.
Refuse to reject the person or family in crisis. Don’t wash your hands of a family because you’ve given them a referral to a mental health professional. Like others in crisis, people affected by mental illness need to know that you care. Ask questions: Are you managing your illness? Are you caring for yourself? Is the family healthy? Are your family members caring for themselves?
10. Be patient.
Mental illness is not resolved overnight. Much mental illness is never “resolved” but can be managed. For many people, success means learning to function well most of the time despite a formerly debilitating illness. One man put it this way: “I don’t think churches can say, ‘Well, by next year we’ll have this thing solved.’ No, you’ll never have it solved, so just deal with that right now. It’s like saying we’ll eradicate sin from our congregation. I don’t think so.”
11. Help with practical needs.
Most churches have a plan for providing meals and other practical assistance to families in need, but many overlook the needs of individuals and families affected by mental illness. When they are in crisis, they need meals. When they are adjusting to new medications, they need rides. In the hospital, they can benefit from short visits. Sometimes they need a quiet place to go or someone quiet to come to them. And they very likely need help covering the expenses of medications, hospitalizations and therapy.
12. Draw boundaries and stick to them.
Just because someone is mentally ill, you don’t 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.
13. Know when you are in over your head.
As one Christian counselor said, “Pastors should not fool themselves into thinking they can handle everything.” 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.
14. Use resources.
Even if you know next to nothing about mental health and the therapeutic system, you have more resources at your disposal than you may realize. Take advantage of them.
15. Start a support group.
If your church is ready to make a deeper commitment to support people affected by mental illness, consider whether you are equipped to start a support group. As I mentioned earlier, your community probably has a variety of resources—including support groups—to help people with mental illness. However, most of those groups are not faith-based and will leave matters of faith out of the discussion. Perhaps your church could fill the gap. Or you might partner with other churches to create a support-group ministry to a larger community.
So, if you’re like most people and you have been unsure how you can help, besides referring people to professionals, take heart and realize that churches and their leaders can do a lot to help heal and support individuals and families affected by mental illness. It’s actually easier than you might have thought. You don’t need to feel a burden to “fix” or “treat” people. You can start by being a friend and helping to meet their basic needs. You can work with mental health professionals to support their treatment. And where true healing from illness is elusive or impossible, you can demonstrate the kind of love God has for all of us—the kind that doesn’t waver, no matter how hard we are to live with.
Video with Amy Simpson
Watch this video to learn more about Simpson’s heart behind her book.
[callout]Taken from Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission by Amy Simpson. ©2013 by Amy Simpson. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove IL 60515-1426. www.ivpress.com[/callout]
[special]Amy Simpson is a speaker, editor, leadership coach, and author of the award-winning books Blessed Are the Unsatisfied, Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission, and Anxious. An acquisitions editor for Moody Publishing, she has previously worked in publishing for organizations like Tyndale House Publishers, Group Publishing, Gospel Light, Standard Publishing, LifeWay, Focus on the Family, and Christianity Today. Connect with her at her website.[/special]