“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.” Amy Simpson, in her new book Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission, shows how we as individuals and as the church can show love those with mental illness. Amy kindly let us interview her for our blog; take a look at part one, and next week come back for part two and a giveaway.
Tell us about your upcoming book, Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission.
The book is part story, part research, part prescription, and part inspiration. In it, I’ve told some of my own story as it relates to mental illness, along with the stories of several other people who have been affected by mental illness, either directly or indirectly. I try to help readers understand the experiences and hardships of many individuals and families who are affected by mental illness. I also share the results of some research I did with Leadership Journal, discuss how the church currently responds to mental illness, and encourage us all to do better. I want to see the church embrace people with mental illness and view this kind of ministry as part of our basic mission in this life.
You grew up with mental illness in your family. How did it affect you? How did it affect your family?
My mother has been diagnosed with schizophrenia. She showed symptoms of her illness before I ever came onto the scene, but her suffering and symptoms became much more pronounced when I was a young teenager, through a period of extraordinary stress for our family. Over the following twenty-plus years, she went through a repeating cycle of hospitalization, stabilization, decline, then hospitalization again. Like the rest of my family, I was forced to go through the process of losing her and grieving her each time. Because I didn’t really understand the nature of her illness, for a long time I didn’t understand she had a chronic condition. Each time she came home and seemed more stable, I thought, or at least hoped, she was back for good. Later, we began to understand the true nature of her condition.
Like many other families that go through similar experiences, our family life revolved around Mom and her illness. The rest of us had to put our emotional lives on the back burner to keep the peace and avoid stress and conflict at home. We didn’t talk much about what was happening with her. And because we didn’t feel it was OK to discuss mental illness with others, we mostly kept quiet about it when we were away from home, too. We felt very isolated, as if we were the only ones going through the experience.
What are some of the difficulties of caring for someone with mental illness?
In Troubled Minds, I’ve devoted an entire chapter to helping readers understand these difficulties, so obviously there are many answers to this question. But I’ll share a couple of common types of hardship.
People who haven’t walked through it may not realize that the mental-health care system can be very difficult to navigate. For example, many people have to work with multiple care providers who don’t necessarily communicate with one another. If the person with an illness is an adult, family members aren’t allowed access to their medical information without written consent, but people in mental-health crisis aren’t always in a position to give informed consent. So loved ones are often kept in the dark, without adequate understanding of the true nature of the person’s illness and his or her needs.
Also, no one is allowed to force care on another person unless that person presents a clear danger to self or someone else. So many family members and friends are gravely concerned for people they love but unable to do anything because that person refuses to seek care. Life is chaotic, charged with anxiety, and sometimes scary. Many families are forced to wait for the person to become dangerous or commit a crime and run afoul of the police.
Stigma is a huge problem. Our culture treats mental illness differently from other forms of sickness, disease, and injury <click to tweet>. We sometimes speak of mental illness as if it’s a legitimate source of entertainment or a horror that should never be spoken of. Some people with mental illness are marginalized and socially rejected, and many more are afraid this will happen to them. People with mental illness feel a sense of shame and pressure to stay quiet about their struggles. This has an overall effect of silencing many people—which reinforces the idea that mental illness is rare and happening at the margins. This feeds the stigma and deepens people’s sense of isolation. Many people whose homes are affected by mental illness feel terribly alone and cut off from the rest of the world.
Yes, my interest in mental illness and the church comes entirely out of my own family’s experience. As I sought to understand my mom’s illness and how it affected me, I started learning about how common mental illness is. I read about other people’s experiences and realized how similar they were to ours. I began to understand that the church’s lack of engagement was affecting many more people than just my family. And as God was doing his healing work in me, he began to nudge me toward writing on this topic as a ministry to others. As I was planning an article for Leadership Journal, the editor and I felt it would be valuable to survey church leaders and find out about their experiences with mental illness. And later, as I was writing Troubled Minds, I wanted to represent more perspectives and experiences than just my own family’s. But my family’s experience was the starting point.
What advice would you give to someone personally struggling with mental illness?
I would encourage that person to accept the illness but reject the sense of shame that might accompany it. There is no reason to be ashamed of illness. Each year, more than 25 percent of adults in the United States suffer from a diagnosable mental illness. Mental illness is quite common. In fact, it’s about equal to the total percentage of people diagnosed with cancer each year, people with heart disease and diabetes, and everyone infected with HIV and AIDS—combined! Although many people don’t talk about their experiences with mental illness, we are all literally surrounded by people who are suffering.
I would also ask a struggling person to try to trust that God hasn’t abandoned you <click to tweet>. In Romans 8:35-38, the apostle Paul, who suffered tremendously, asked, “Does it mean [God] no longer loves us if we have trouble or calamity, or are persecuted, or hungry, or destitute, or in danger, or threatened with death?” His answer: No! He went on to write that nothing, “not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love.” Mental illness can feel like an attack from hell itself, but regardless of how you may feel, it cannot drive God away from you, and abandonment is not in God’s nature <click to tweet>.
It’s also important to know that mental illnesses are real medical conditions, caused by biological and environmental factors. They can be treated. Some treatments are up to ninety-percent effective. As with many other medical conditions, successful treatment doesn’t necessarily mean the illness is cured, but therapy and medications can help people manage their disorders and live well. For your own sake and the sake of the people who love you, seek treatment and follow your treatment plans. Take responsibility for managing your illness and pursuing health. God has purposes and plans for you, and your illness did not take him by surprise <click to tweet>. His plans for you have not changed.
What advice would you give to someone living with or caring for someone struggling with mental illness?
First I would say take care of yourself. As with any illness or injury, you won’t be able to care for someone else long-term if you’re not strong and healthy yourself. Don’t neglect your own health more than you have to in a time of acute crisis. Don’t try to do this on your own. Pray, be honest with God about your own suffering, and ask him to give you strength and wisdom. Then go looking for other people who can help.
Finding support from others can be tricky. Your loved one may not want you to talk with others about his or her illness. You may reach out to people you think will help, only to feel rejected when they respond in a hurtful way. But even if your loved one doesn’t want you to talk about him or her, you can choose to talk about yourself and your own needs. I suggest looking first in safe places like support groups specifically created for loved ones of people with mental illness. Look for a local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), and find out when their support groups meet. Look for a local church or Christian ministry that offers supportive groups. Try to find a Christian counselor who can help you make sense of your own suffering and support your health.
Third, I encourage you to wrestle with the theological questions and spiritual crisis mental illness may generate for you. For many people, mental illness just doesn’t fit what we thought the Christian life should be. And because we don’t often hear it addressed in churches, you may feel God doesn’t have answers to your questions. But he does, and you’re not the first person to ask them. Ask God to help you understand his truth in your situation, and seek counsel from a spiritual leader who has expertise in this area. In the back of my book, I recommend some resources, including books, websites, and organizations, who can help with these questions. Operating from a place of spiritual strength can support your pursuit of health and strength in every area of life. It can also give you confidence in walking through mental illness alongside someone you love—who may ask those same questions.
What was the role of the church in helping you and your family deal with mental illness?
The church’s role has been mixed. Before I was a teenager, my dad was a pastor. After Mom’s illness fully blossomed, he never served as a pastor again. But we were very active and involved laypeople. On the one hand, the church has been mostly silent on the reality of mental illness—and we got the message that we should be silent as well. This silence was isolating and cruel, even though it wasn’t intentionally so. Our church was full of good people, some of whom didn’t know what was going on with my family and some of whom knew but didn’t know how to help.
On the other hand, some of my our greatest help has come through individuals in the church who have done small things like make eye contact instead of avoid it, visit Mom in prison, answer late-night phone calls to help her sort through her thoughts, stick with Dad’s small group when he was in crisis every week. These simple acts of love can make an enormous difference to people who feel like they’re lost in the dark and other people keep turning their backs.
If you’re interested in learning the rest of Amy’s story, come back next week for the rest of the Q&A and for a giveaway! You can also purchase a copy of her book here. By the way, be sure to visit Amy’s website and follow her on Facebook and Twitter.