We hope our Q&A with Amy Simpson, author of Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church, has been enlightening and thought-provoking. You can read part HERE. Read party two in today’s Sunday Refreshments series, watch the video interview with Amy, and then enter to win a copy of her book!
Again, I’ve shared many ideas in the book, and I’ve even profiled a few churches who have programs specifically ministering to people with mental illness. So there’s plenty I could say on this topic. But there are some very basic places churches can start.
First, many church leaders need to get some basic education about mental illness and overcome their misunderstandings. This may involve working with their local NAMI chapter or another organization to host faith-based training for the church and community. They also need to realize they are at the front lines of mental-health care. One quarter of people who seek treatment for mental disorders go first to a member of the clergy. This is higher than the percentage of people who go to either psychiatrists or general medical doctors.
Churches also need to understand that mental illness is not simply a spiritual condition. While it may be related to a spiritual issue, mental illnesses are real diseases and disorders with biological and environmental causes. People should not be expected to “get over it” or to be cured simply by reading the Bible, praying, and trying to have more faith.
Churches can break their silence on mental illness, addressing it in sermons, small groups, and classes. They can pray for those suffering from mental illness, visit them in the hospital, bring them meals, and generally provide the same kind of practical help they offer to other sick and injured people. They can work toward dismantling the stigma that keeps people from seeking help and acknowledging their suffering.
Churches can also build relationships with mental-health professionals. Most Christian counselors are eager to work in partnership with churches, and many people in treatment will sign consent forms for their doctors or therapists to consult with pastors or other church leaders. When a loving, trusting, and supportive relationship is in place, the church can actively participate in helping people pursue their own health. And when those consent forms are not in place, church leaders can still consult professionals for general advice on how to respond to various types of illness within their congregations.
It’s important that churches not forget the families of suffering people! Loved ones need support too; as I’ve mentioned, living with and caring for someone with mental illness can be extremely challenging. And strengthening that support system may ultimately be the most effective way to help the person with the illness. Check in with the family, ask them what they need, and be prepared to do what you can to help.
What can individual Christians to do help people affected by mental illness?
Individual Christians need to confront our own attitudes, and especially fears, about mental illness <click to tweet>. Because of the way mental illness is portrayed in the news, in popular media, and in our own imaginations, many of our first reactions to mental illness are based in fear, either because we see our own potential reflected in people with mental illness, because we believe people with mental illness are inherently violent (which is not true), or because we’re nervous about uncomfortable conversations or situations we don’t know how to handle. It’s important to acknowledge these fears and to learn to separate legitimate fear from irrational fear.
Recognize and embrace the truth that people with mental illness are people created in the image of God, loved and valuable. People with mental illness are no less important than others, and people with symptoms are no less valuable than when they’re not experiencing symptoms. This is an important starting point.
Individual Christians can get educated as well—read a book, attend a NAMI workshop, do some research online. We can try to develop a very basic understanding of various types of mental illness and their treatments. We can refuse to belittle, mock, or demonize people who are struggling with mental illness or under treatment.
Most of us are not mental-health professionals, and mental illness intimidates us. Most of us are not heart surgeons either, but we don’t seem to struggle with knowing how to support someone who’s undergoing heart surgery or adapting to a change in lifestyle because of a heart condition. We should acknowledge our limitations but remember that no professional qualifications are required to be friendly and kind or to enter supportive friendships. We can offer companionship, make idea contact, grant the dignity of a handshake and a smile, and perhaps even offer friendship.
What can people do to offer spiritual help and comfort to people with mental illness?
It starts with acknowledging our own questions and seeking answers. For many people, mental illness doesn’t make sense. In this part of the world, we have the mistaken understanding that life—especially the Christian life—is supposed to be comfortable and happy. We’re not supposed to have big, chronic problems that steal our peace or disrupt our understanding of reality. But such problems are totally consistent with Christian theology. Biblical truth tells us we’ve been fooling ourselves: “Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows” (John 16:33). “While we live in these earthly bodies, we groan and sigh” (2 Corinthians 5:4). God’s “power works best in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). There’s no reason to believe that while the rest of our bodies our subject to decay and disorder, our brains should somehow be spared. Embracing a more accurate and orthodox theology of suffering is a good place to start.
Then we can prepare to help answer others’ questions about how mental illness fits within Christian teaching on the effects of original sin, the presence of sickness in our world, God’s unconditional love, redemption in this life, and complete healing in the next. We can offer hope through Christ’s love, his purpose for all people, and his coming renewal of all creation.
But for most people suffering from mental illness, the spiritual crisis is as much about God’s presence as theological questions—maybe even more. It’s hard to trust that God is near when just being awake hurts. It’s tough to believe in his love when you’re not sure whether to believe that voice you just heard was real. It’s difficult to embrace his peace when your heart won’t stop racing and your involuntary panic makes you feel as if you will literally explode any second. And it’s easy to believe that when fellow Christians walk away from you, God has walked away too. For most people, the most powerful spiritual nurture we can provide is to represent God’s faithfulness through our own loyal presence. Ask if you can pray with the person or listen or just sit nearby for a while. Assure the person that God has not abandoned him or her (Romans 8:35-38), and don’t deviate from this message.
Are people with mental illness doomed to a life of spiritual emptiness? Can they engage in effective ministry along with those not mentally ill?
No, people with mental illness are not doomed to a life of spiritual emptiness. In fact, many of us would say the people with greatest spiritual depth and joy are the ones who have walked through great trouble. Mental illness is no exception—it can produce profound understanding of God’s love and faithfulness.
Capacity for ministry depends on the person, his or her specific condition and level of health. But in general, people with mental illness absolutely can engage in effective ministry alongside others. They should be pursuing health and managing their illnesses, and this will work best when they are allowed to have bad days or they’re given the grace to take a break when symptomatic and still return to their ministry roles when they’re doing well. Unfortunately, many people with mental illness don’t feel this kind of acceptance and grace and don’t feel there is a place for them in ministry.
God always has a purpose for everyone. Mental illness may alter the course of a person’s life, but it doesn’t mean that person’s life is no good anymore. Psalm 139 is a beautiful reminder of our value to God, and his attention to the details of our lives. Verse 16 celebrates, “You saw me before I was born. Every day of my life was recorded in your book. Every moment was laid out before a single day had passed.” God is not surprised by any of our suffering, and he wants to use all of us <click to tweet>. His redemption is always at work, and he uses suffering to make all of us more like him and to qualify us for ministry to others.
Everyone in my family—my parents, my three siblings, and I—would say God has redeemed our suffering. That doesn’t mean we don’t suffer anymore. It doesn’t mean Mom has been healed or doesn’t have symptoms anymore. It means we’ve all been blessed to see how our experience has helped us know God more, deepened our faith, and given us opportunities to minister in Jesus’ name.
For me specifically, when I started speaking up about my family’s experience, God showed me I wasn’t alone. God showed me that many other people need the same thing I need—someone to speak up and talk about mental illness in a healthy and redemptive way that points to hope in Christ. So, with my parents’ blessing, I started writing. I’ve written the book and multiple articles on this topic. I’ve shared my family’s story on the radio and on camera. And every time I write or speak to a new audience, I hear from other people who share their own stories with me. I get to listen to people, pray with them, and sometimes watch a new kind of peace settle in their eyes just because they know they’re not alone and their suffering does not mean God has abandoned them.
In some ways, my Mom has come full-circle. She still suffers from schizophrenia, and barring a miraculous healing, she will experience symptoms and need medication for the rest of her life. But she is doing very well. I’m proud of her and the way she is working to manage her illness.
God has never abandoned Mom or the rest of my family, although we did not always recognize his presence with us. We all look forward to the day when we will be remade and all illness and suffering will cease. Someday we will have new bodies (including new brains) that don’t break down. Second Corinthians 5:1-5 describes the contrast between “this earthly tent we live in” and our permanent “house in heaven, an eternal body made for us by God himself and not by human hands.” Verse 4 provides a captivating image of what Jesus’ followers will experience someday: “While we live in these earthly bodies, we groan and sigh, but it’s not that we want to die and get rid of these bodies that clothe us. Rather, we want to put on our new bodies so that these dying bodies will be swallowed up by life.” That is the ultimate fulfillment of redemption, and we look forward to it very much.
We’re also giving away a copy of Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church! Enter below. Only those in the U.S. are eligible to win.