Welcoming People with Mental Health Issues Into the Church
This is a guest post by Joseph Mulak. Joseph blogs at Walking in the Faith, “The purpose of this site is to help Christians live out their faith while living in an increasingly secular society.” In this post, Joseph speaks to a topic that is close to my heart and that is mental health and the church. Joseph is a fellow Canadian, so that makes him definitely worth reading.
Mental health issues are on the rise. Today, 1 in 5 people in Canada suffer from mental illness. The stats in the U.S. is pretty much the same. Statistically speaking, this means you probably have at least one or two people with a mental illness in your church.
You might not know who they are. This is because the stigma against those with mental health issues is so prevalent in society, even—dare I say especially?—in the church, people are afraid to come forward. So they hide it as best they can, hoping no one finds out.
About 20 years ago, I had a friend who loved God. I would walk to the store and he would insist on coming with me and he would stop and evangelize to every person we passed on the way, making what should have been a ten minute walk last almost an hour. He studied his Bible for hours every day. He was active in his church. He would call us and if we weren’t home, he would recite Bible verses on our voicemail. Then one day, we got a phone call informing us he had hung himself. No one saw it coming. I spent years trying to figure out why he had done it. It took me a long time to come the conclusion that there must have been a mental health issue involved. But he never told anyone. Maybe he didn’t even know himself.
How many people have we lost to suicide because a mental illness went undiagnosed? I don’t know, but the answer scares me. This is why the church needs to be doing its part for those suffering from mental illness.
Know that Mental Illness Isn’t Necessarily a Spiritual Problem:
Ever since Adam and Eve sinned, we live in a broken world. That first sin brought death into the world and diseases like cancer, leukemia, heart disease, ALS, AIDS, Parkinson’s, etc.
You know what else it brought into the world? Major depressive disorder, anxiety disorder, schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder, borderline personality disorder.
Mental illnesses are caused by genetics, brain chemistry, and environmental factors. For example, scientists believe that one of the causes of schizophrenia is an excess of dopamine, (neurotransmitters that control the brain’s reward and pleasure centres.
If this is the case, then schizophrenia is a physical illness, not a spiritual one as many Christians make it out to be by calling it demon possession. Recognizing mental illness for what it is (and isn’t) is a good start to welcoming people with mental health issues into your church.
Be Careful What You Say:
My wife and I have a child with low-functioning autism. I recently had someone tell me that he knew a girl with autism who couldn’t speak. Through years of prayer, he says, the autism went away when she was 11 and the girl now speaks in full sentences.
Let me be clear about this. Just because the girl can speak now doesn’t mean the autism went away. If Cayden were to start talking in full sentences, he would still be autistic.
Here are some things I have heard people say about those with mental illness:
“If you have enough faith, God will heal you.”
“If you had faith in God, you’d stop taking your medication and let Him heal you.”
“You don’t have a mental illness, you’re possessed by a demon.”
“Your anxiety is caused by not trusting God.”
Can you imagine suffering from depression and being told God’s not healing you because you don’t have enough faith? That’s going to be detrimental to that person’s well-being.
I’m not against praying for healing. I do believe God can heal but I don’t believe in telling people that God will heal them. Not everyone experiences divine healing. I’m not going to get into this topic right now, but if you want an excellent article on this topic, check out http://www.clayjones.net/2017/09/prayer-for-healing-iii-gods-our-father/.
Yes, this has happened and, if you’ve ever known anyone with bi-polar disorder, you know how hard it is to get them back on their medication once they’ve stopped taking it.
Education is Key:
If you have someone in your church who knows about mental illness, I recommend holding a seminar and encouraging everyone in the church to attend. Or even make it part of the regular service. If there are people in your church with mental health issues, maybe have them speak to talk about their personal experiences. Mental health is a subject on which many people are ignorant and it never hurts to be as educated as possible. Teach people how to recognize the signs of mental illness to help ensure they are not going undiagnosed and also teach them what to do in the case of a mental health crisis. There are people who have made a career of teaching mental health first aid. I’ve taken the course and found it very helpful.
Many churches have social gatherings after their services. You may have noticed some people try to sneak out unnoticed right after the service to avoid having to talk to anyone. Or sometimes there are people standing by themselves. Maybe these people are shy. But it could be something else. Walking up to these people and starting a conversation is good way to make them feel welcome in the church.
Maybe someone you know has a mental illness wasn’t in church on a particular day? Maybe something came up. Or they were sick. But it could be something else. Calling them to say you noticed they weren’t in church and asking if everything okay can go a long way. That simple phone call can make a person feel loved and welcome, whereas maybe they felt judged and shunned before.
Have you met someone in your church with a mental illness? Ask them questions about it (if they’re comfortable talking about it) and listen to the answers. Learn about them as a person, they are so much more than their mental illness. Learn about their struggles. Sometimes having someone who listens goes a long way to feeling loved and welcome.
Always remember, mental illness or not, we are all created in the image of God and are deserving of love and respect.