Amy Simpson will be speaking later today at Saddleback Church’s Gathering on Mental Illness and the Church. We were fortunate to have her guest blog for us last Mother’s Day. Amy is a former publishing executive now working at Christianity Today as Editor of GiftedForLeadership.com and developing 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.
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 wrote for us last year on the topic, 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.
Missing Basic Needs
In at least a few documented cases, Nevada’s mental-health care system placed people on buses without adequate provisions or chaperones. Many churches use a similar strategy, without realizing they’re not fulfilling their responsibilities.
- If you’re a church leader who doesn’t happen to be a qualified mental health professional, do you recognize and acknowledge your limitations? If yes, that’s a good thing.
- Do you refer people to professionals who can help with disorders and provide therapy and medication as necessary? This is also a good thing.
- But do you then walk away and assume your job is done?
- Mental-health care is incomplete without spiritual nurture and loving friendship. Does your church push people toward psychiatric care but leave them without adequate spiritual guidance and a kind friend to walk alongside them?
- Do you provide practical help (hospital visits, meals, rides, financial assistance) to people with other health crises but ignore these basic needs in families affected by mental illness?
Psychiatrists do not provide pastoral care. Therapists don’t make sure the bills are paid and the kids get to school. Medication does not answer questions about why God feels so far away. Just because people receive medical treatment does not mean they don’t need anything more from the church.
Neglecting Support Systems
Nevada claims it is simply busing people back to their home states and first making contact with support systems at those destinations. But investigations reveal those connections are not always made and plans for follow-up care aren’t always in place. Many churches also fail to consider what they can do to strengthen the support system for people with mental illness.
- Are you ignoring the families of people with mental illness? My own survey showed that only 56.8 percent of church leaders have reached out to the family of someone with mental illness within their congregation. Have you asked families what they need? Are you prepared to help as you can?
- Do you consult with mental-health professionals? If people in your congregation are receiving care, you can request that they sign consent forms to allow you to collaborate with professionals and discuss the best ways for your church to support these members’ mental health. If you don’t receive that written consent, you can still discuss the best ways for you to support people with various types of mental illness.
- As in Nevada’s state mental-health care system, in your church are people getting caught within a beauracratic system with no one really aware of or responsible for their needs?
- Are you relying on “trickle-down ministry,” focusing on your core leaders and expecting them to lead the next tier, and so on? Is anyone in your church likely to feel responsible for a good support system, or does everyone assume someone else will take care of it?
- Are you willing to adapt your schedules, plans, and expectations in order to deal compassionately with people in crisis? Or do you expect everyone to follow the same process and grow within the same system?
- Are you willing to let people with mental illness do ministry in your church? Mental illness is rarely predictable, but it is not a spiritual or relational death sentence. People affected by mental disorders don’t always fit into a tightly scripted service with high production values. It can hard to find their place in a segmented congregation. But with understanding and grace, you can give them opportunities to serve according to the gifts God has given them. Allowing people to engage in ministry when they’re functioning well, and take a break when they’re not, can provide an incredible support system.
A Call to the Church
I wrote my new book, Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission, to help the church better understand the needs of people affected by mental illness. I also wrote it to challenge the church—that’s everyone who follows Christ—to see this as part of our mission in this life.
As I’ve said in my book, “The church should not lag; it should lead the way. We serve a God who calls us to serve “the least of these” as if we were serving him (Mt 25:40). Jesus said, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor—sick people do. I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners” (Mk 2:17). As living temples carrying God’s presence in this world, we must allow his light to shine out from us and infiltrate the darkness that surrounds so many people and drives some of them to despair.”
Let’s embrace our calling and shine the light of Christ in the darkness.
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.