Amy is a passionate leader and communicator who loves to encourage Christ’s church and its people to discern and fulfill their calling in this life. A former publishing executive, she now spends part of her professional life working at Christianity Today as Editor of GiftedForLeadership.com and marriage & parenting resources for Today’s Christian Woman. She has published articles in Leadership Journal, Christianity Today, Today’s Christian Woman, Relevant, PRISM Magazine, Her.meneutics, ThinkChristian, Christian Singles, Group Magazine, and several others. I have worked for Tyndale House Publishers, Group Publishing, Standard, Gospel Light, Lifeway, Focus on the Family, and Christianity Today.
Her family’s firsthand experience with mental illness provided the inspiration for her new book, Troubled Minds: Mental Health and the Church’s Mission. She’ll be sharing with our readers twice this week. Here’s her guest post to kick off the month, Does Your Church Inadvertently Hurt People With Mental Illness?
In April, news outlets revealed a disturbing practice that’s apparently common in Nevada’s State mental health system, and particularly in its largest psychiatric hospital, Rawson-Neal Psychiatric Hospital in Las Vegas.
The hospital, coverage revealed, regularly places people with mental illness on Greyhound buses and sends them to other states. In 2012, Rawson-Neal sent nearly 400 patients to 176 cities and 45 states around the country.
The state claims it’s merely helping people find their way back home, but specific cases show this is not always true. Nevada also claims the state is sending people off with adequate provisions, but again, documented cases call that claim into question.
Is Your Church Like Vegas?
Like Nevada, and all the states those Greyhound busses are bound for, churches are full of people who struggle with mental illness. Each year, 26.2 percent of the American adult population suffers from a diagnosable mental illness. At the same time, an estimated 20 percent of children in the United States are at least mildly impaired by some type of diagnosable mental illness. And about 5 to 9 percent of children ages 9 to 17 have a “serious emotional disturbance.” That translates to millions of individuals and families directly affected by mental illness. Many more are affected by the symptoms of friends, classmates, co-workers, and the people who sit next to them on Sunday morning.
The church is the first place many people go when they’re looking for help of all kinds, including treatment for mental illness. Among people who have sought treatment, 25 percent have gone first to a member of the clergy. This is a higher percentage than those who have gone to psychiatrists, general medical doctors, or anyone else. Unfortunately, many church leaders are ill-equipped to help people get the care they need. And while 25 percent of those who seek help from clergy have the most serious forms of mental illness, studies have shown that clergy refer less than 10 percent of them to mental-health professionals. On top of that, for every person who seeks help, many more stay silent, afraid to admit their illnesses to themselves or to risk the rejection of the people around them.
With so many opportunities to help people in need, how many churches respond as the state of Nevada does?
Some churches actually intentionally reject people with mental illness. In their theological framework, mental illness has no place among God’s people. Those who manifest symptoms are assumed to be demon-possessed, willfully attached to some egregious sin, or lacking the faith they need to claim God’s healing. When they don’t get better by simply praying or exercising more faith, they are considered at fault and not welcome within the fellowship. Such churches misunderstand the true nature of mental illness and need to revisit their theology of illness and suffering of all kinds. Until they do, they are not safe places for people with mental illness or their families and are best avoided.
But most churches do not hold to the kind of theology that overtly blames, rejects, and casts out people whose brains have shown themselves particularly vulnerable to the forces of disease and decay that haunt us all in various ways. Even so, many inadvertently communicate rejection through their policies or culture.
Here are three ways many churches are emulating Nevada, along with some key questions for church leaders.
Uniquely Attractive—and Responsible
As news coverage has pointed out, the city of Las Vegas makes Nevada a unique state: “The city’s entertainment and casino culture draws people from all over the world…including the mentally ill.” The trappings of Vegas may be more likely to attract people with mood disorders, schizophrenia, and other conditions—and the same may be said for churches. Spiritual experiences, promises of peace and joy, opportunities for community and for communion with God…these elements of church life are understandably attractive to many people with mental illness. Churches have a special responsibility to recognize this and respond intentionally.
- Do you make people with mental disorders feel unwelcome? ignore them and focus on the more attractive new people who walk through your doors, hoping they’ll go away and other churches will meet their needs?
- In sermons, Bible studies, and classes, do you send the false message that Christians should not expect trouble, pain, or sickness? that happy, comfortable, and “victorious” life is the norm?
- When was the last time mental illness was mentioned in a sermon, in a way that normalized it?
- Does your community expect people to have it all together when they walk through the doors?
- Do you expect people to be “cured” before finding a place to serve?
None of us will ever be whole this side of heaven—and many people with mental illness suffer from chronic and repetitive symptoms that can be managed but not technically cured. These conditions do not cancel God’s purposes for them. They do not disqualify people from a place in the body of Christ. Just as much as other ill or injured people, they deserve loving acceptance, clear and consistent boundaries, and grace.
Next Sunday…Amy will be guest blogging again-her topic: A Call to the Church.
Mental illness is the sort of thing we don’t like to talk about. It doesn’t reduce nicely to simple solutions and happy outcomes. So instead, too often we reduce people who are mentally ill to caricatures and ghosts, and simply pretend they don’t exist. They do exist, however—statistics suggest that one in four people suffer from some kind of mental illness. And then there’s their friends and family members, who bear their own scars and anxious thoughts, and who see no safe place to talk about the impact of mental illness on their lives and their loved ones. Many of these people are sitting in churches week after week, suffering in stigmatized silence. In Troubled Minds Amy Simpson, whose family knows the trauma and bewilderment of mental illness, reminds us that people with mental illness are our neighbors and our brothers and sisters in Christ, and she shows us the path to loving them well and becoming a church that loves God with whole hearts and whole souls, with the strength we have and with minds that are whole as well as minds that are troubled. Available at Amazon and Christianbook.com.
FREE GIVEAWAY! Every person who becomes a NEW e-mail subscriber to Church4EveryChild between now and May 13th is automatically entered in a drawing for a free copy of Amy’s new book, Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission. Enter your e-mail in the sidebar to your right and you’re automatically registered.