The Church and Mental Illness: We Are Called to Care

By Amy Simpson June 9, 2022

church and mental illness
Image credit: Adobe Stock

It felt like an earthquake, the ground suddenly moving underneath us. When the quaking stopped, everything—and everyone—had changed… and the aftershocks would continue for decades. Only this was a different kind of shaking.

I was only 14 and my family was rocked to its foundation when my mother suffered a severe and disabling psychotic break. After that day, her illness could no longer be hidden; her symptoms could no longer be dismissed as quirks of personality. Eventually, she was diagnosed with schizophrenia, an apt explanation for her long history of challenges with cognitive functioning, emotional expression, and relationships. Her diagnosis was a helpful point of reference for the future as we walked through the harsh effects of her illness: delusions, paranoia, religious confusion, panic attacks, numerous hospital admissions, homelessness, criminal conviction, and even prison time.

My dad was a pastor until I was 13. After that we were committed laypeople, involved in a strong church that, like many, was in over its head when facing my family’s crisis. I had been in church my entire life and never heard mental illness mentioned in a sermon, youth group meeting, or any other theological conversation. So when mom’s breakdown created a spiritual crisis for me, I didn’t feel I could discuss my questions with anyone. That door just wasn’t open.

Destructive Beliefs

After growing and healing, I have written extensively about mental illness and the Church’s response, including the book, Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission. I regularly speak on the topic and have opportunities to hear from many people who have experienced mental illness personally and in their families. Although many of these individuals feel alone in their trouble, they share common experiences, questions, and needs. 

For many, a mental illness—theirs or a loved one’s—cuts right into the way they see themselves, God, and their community of faith. Here are some common myths people need the Church to contradict:

  • “God has rejected me.” Painful thoughts and feelings convince people God has walked away from them because they did something unforgivable or do not have enough faith.
  • “My life is worthless now.” Although a great deal of mental illness can be successfully addressed, with some treatments up to 90% effective, many view a mental health diagnosis as the end of hope for a productive and fulfilling life.
  • “I’m alone.” Because of the stigma and silence surrounding mental health, many believe their problems are rare and no one can effectively relate to them. 
  • “No one can answer my questions.” When there is little to no theological discussion regarding mental illness and the Church avoids the conversation altogether, many believe the Christian faith has nothing to offer in the face of this trial.
  • “If I speak up, I’ll be rejected.” Many are hiding in fear, convinced that if they admit to struggling with mental health issues, they will be ostracized… and in some cases, they are right.

Stigma in the Church

Churches, even those that want to help, frequently exacerbate the crisis by perpetuating a sense of shame. Here are some of the ways churches stigmatize mental illness:

  • They send the message that Christians do not have serious problems. Some churches embrace this idea as part of their core teaching; others suggest it without meaning to.
  • They perpetuate a misunderstanding and mistrust of psychology. There are outdated notions of psychology and the belief it leads people away from God because it is based on scientific research rather than pure biblical teaching—never acknowledging that every other field of medicine is also scientifically based.
  • They refer and forget. While it is appropriate for churches to refer people to mental health professionals, abandoning them without proper spiritual care communicates that the Church has nothing to offer in times of real darkness.
  • They stay silent. When failing to address mental illness as reality, we reinforce loneliness and marginalization and send a message that God offers no help or hope.
  • They assume all mental illness is caused by demons. This faulty belief undermines legitimate treatment and isolates people who need help.
  • They claim mental illness is evidence of weak faith or flagrant sinSome blame people for their suffering, suggesting they are less spiritual and/or more sinful than the rest of us and withhold the grace and hope Christ gives freely.
  • They propose purely spiritual solutions to medical problems. Some discourage people from seeking medical help and, instead, suggest religious activity or intervention as the solution.

The Church’s Response to Mental Illness

How, then, should churches be engaged? Considering the frequency of mental illness—it affects one in five American adults in any given year—failing to respond is not an option. Since clergy members are the first place people go for help, it is a ministry responsibility we must embrace. Churches can assist in a number of ways:

  • Teach about suffering from a theological perspective. People need to know that illness does not indicate God has abandoned them. They also need to hear spiritual leaders contradict the idea that Christians should expect an easy life.
  • Recognize the opportunity. Because people often turn to clergy for help, churches have a unique responsibility to be ready and respond to those who come to them during their time of need. Church leaders must see this ministry opportunity and educate their congregations on its critical importance.
  • Get educated. Church leaders must develop a basic knowledge of mental illness. Mental health professionals can help with this, sharing knowledge, equipping lay caregivers and making themselves available for consultation. This might include training, such as National Association of Mental Illness (NAMI) programs or Mental Health First Aid.
  • Meet practical needs. People overlook the help they already know how to offer others who are in distress: meals, rides, financial help, child care, home maintenance, and one’s tangible and caring presence. 
  • Offer referrals. Churches must recognize when they are “in over their heads” and provide appropriate referrals to Christian counselors and other mental health professionals.
  • Be the church. Referring people to professionals is not an excuse to step out of their lives. The Church is uniquely positioned to provide ongoing spiritual care and a loving community.
  • Discuss mental illness in sermons, classes, and Bible studies. Mental illness is part of the human experience, and recognizing it in spiritual environments can give people permission to acknowledge their needs and questions.
  • Pray publicly. People need to know that both the Church and God care about their needs. Praying in general terms for people struggling with mental health is a powerful ministry.
  • Start a ministry. Churches can start support groups, crisis intervention, counseling ministries, and other caregiving activities for people with mental illness and their loved ones. Our mental healthcare system is full of gaps, and churches can play an important role in making help more accessible and providing Christ-centered care.

Above all, we must recognize our calling to follow the example of our Savior. In Jesus’ ministry on earth, no one was outside the margins of His notice. No one was unworthy of His attention, too sick for His healing, or too dirty for His touch. Jesus loved to surprise those who were usually ignored by noticing them. He loved to heal the ones everyone thought were beyond hope. God’s heart is open toward those who are open to Him. Christ came to save those who were aware of their needs… and we, too, are called to the needy.

This article originally appeared in Christian Counseling Today, Vol. 21 No. 2. Christian Counseling Today is the flagship publication of the American Association of Christian Counselors. To learn more about the AACC, click here.

Author: Narrow Path Ministries

Non-denominational, Independent, Bible believing Church

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