Excerpts from The Washington Post: “Acts of Faith”. These accounts tell how the church often deals with mental health. Contributions to the Post “Acts of Faith” may be reproduced when acknowledged.
My pastor told me it was a sin not to feel joy. Here’s what happens when churches ignore mental illness. By Charlotte Donlon, September 26, 2016
It’s a warm Sunday in May. The morning sun shines through the stained-glass windows. I’m squeezed into the crowded pew with my husband and our two children.
I notice in the worship bulletin that the pastor will be preaching on joy. I immediately began judging a sermon I haven’t heard one word of yet because I sometimes struggle with depression.
The Scripture for this morning was John 16:16-24. The pastor read the verses aloud and said a short prayer. As soon as he began talking through his main points, I braced myself for the disappointment I knew was coming. I suspected he wouldn’t take this opportunity to discuss things such as depression and anxiety in the Christian life.
I was right.
Although much of what he said was good and biblical, he didn’t mention mental illness. Instead, he said if you aren’t experiencing joy, you should examine your life and repent of any sin that might be blocking it.
About 1,000 people heard his sermon. Approximately 200 of those 1,000 could experience some form of mental illness this year. So 200 people may feel shame and guilt because of this sermon.
I glanced at my 13-year-old daughter. She seemed zoned out and disengaged. She has suffered from depression and anxiety for more than a year. I wondered how this sermon has affected her. Was she as frustrated as I am?
On our way home, I think about my friend Allison (her name has been changed for this essay), who is recovering from a mental health crisis that peaked in March. She was diagnosed with bipolar II and is trying to get her meds straight and process how this will affect her life. She is confused and trying to heal. The sermon I just heard wouldn’t offer her any hope.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, one in five adults — approximately 43.8 million Americans — experiences mental illness in a given year. One in 25 — about 10 million — live with a serious mental illness such as schizophrenia, major depression or bipolar disorder. NAMI also says approximately 21.4 percent of youth ages 13 to 18 experience severe mental disorders at some point during their life.
Some statistics to couple with that information come from a 2014 study done by LifeWay Research. Their findings show that only 38 percent of pastors in the United States strongly agree that they feel equipped to identify a person dealing with acute mental illness that may require a referral to a medical professional.
And 49 percent of pastors rarely or never speak to their church in sermons or large group messages about acute mental illness. Of the remaining 51 percent of pastors who do speak about mental illness in sermons or large group messages, 16 percent of them mention mental illness only once each year. That leaves just 35 percent of pastors who talk about mental illness several times a year.
I’ve been a Christian for 21 years. None of my pastors have ever mentioned mental illness in a substantive way in a sermon or during a church-wide meeting. Maybe one pastor has touched on mental illness in a few of his sermons.
I’ve never heard a pastor discuss the role the church should play in caring for those with mental illness. During times that I’ve been ill since I was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a pastor has never reached out to me.
We have been visiting a new church, so we aren’t deeply connected to a faith community right now. I reached out to a few people at that church about our daughter, and they have shown support for our family.
I met with the junior high youth director. Another staff member who is also a friend of ours invited us over for dinner to discuss our current struggles and encourage us. Another staff member has called us to check in several times.
Everyone expresses a desire to care for our daughter. Everyone assures us of God’s love for us. They are in this with us.
Allison is healthier now and willing and able to speak into my current situation with my daughter. She tells me to care for myself, to take my meds, to sleep, to eat. She speaks truth to me when I want to blame myself for my daughter’s condition. She prays for me. And she invites my daughter to spend some time with her.
Since Allison’s mental health crisis started several months ago, no one from her church has offered to pray with her about it or has asked questions about how her illness is affecting her faith. The leadership of her church has been mostly silent about struggles with her new diagnosis.
Amy Simpson, author of “Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission,” said in an interview with Rachel Held Evans that talking about mental illness “is a great place to start and might accomplish 50 percent of what people need from the church. For people isolated by stigma and fear, it’s powerful to hear an acknowledgement that this kind of suffering exists, that it doesn’t mean God has abandoned them, and that people in the church might be willing to walk through it with them.”
Here are some ways pastors can address mental illness in the church: They can mention mental illness while preaching on joy. They can have congregational meetings or send church-wide emails to introduce the topic. They can acknowledge that those who suffer from mental illness may not be able to experience joy at times, and it’s not because they are in sin.
Pastors can also reach out to mentally ill members. And when those members are too depressed or anxious to respond, they can keep reaching out.
Pastors can help address spiritual crises that often accompany mental illness. They can create environments in their churches where people talk about mental illness with as much ease as they talk about diabetes or broken limbs.
Church leaders don’t need to carry the full weight of caring for their mentally ill members. They can encourage friends and family members of those struggling with mental illness to care for and support their loved ones. They can identify those in their churches who have suffered from and recovered from mental illness and ask them to serve alongside church leadership as they provide care.
What has happened in my relationship with Allison can happen in churches that desire to minister to those with mental illness. The church can be a conduit of God’s goodness to those who are sick and scared.
PRAYER and MENTAL HEALTH
A number of years ago, I found myself at a place where I was tired and worn out by my efforts to be of help to others. A friend suggested I attend a contemplative prayer group meeting, and my life has never been the same since that first meeting. Let me tell you a bit more about how prayer and mental health have combined for me in my life.
I remember I was very nervous at that first contemplative prayer meeting. I was given instruction on the process of contemplative prayer and we sat in silence for twenty minutes. Over time, I began to relax and look forward to the fellowship of the meetings and the almost daily time praying in silence. Regular prayer time has slowly but surely helped to calm me in my daily life. Prayer has also helped me to let go of issues more quickly and given me a sense of patience for others and for myself that I did not possess before prayer time. I know now that I always have a place of safe harbour in my prayer. That security has made a difference in how I see the world today.
This past Lent, I taught an Adult Education Prayer Study. Each week of Lent, we reviewed a different type of prayer. I realized that both contemplative prayer and prayers for others (prayer of petition) are the most common type of prayer I use. I find I accomplish three things in my prayer time that help my mental health:
- detachment- prayer helps me to slow down from a busy pace to an slower and deliberate pace, measured by each breath or by each prayer for another;
- sense of purpose- when I pray I feel in contact with those in need of prayer as well as those contemplating the wonder of God;
- action in the world today- despite the somewhat paradoxical nature of spending time to pray to feel more a part of the world, prayer for me is an active agent in fighting the power of evil in the world, both through prayers for others in need in the world and time for contemplation.
I encourage prayer as part of an active mental health practice. I see for myself the benefits of detachment and purpose and action in the busy lives we lead today. I encourage others to do the following:
- Begin to seek out more information about prayer from your local pastor and your local church;
- Look for resources that will help you learn more about the types of prayer you may prefer – there is lots of information on prayer styles and practices;
- Get started;
- Vary your prayer styles over time- prayer combined with walking is my next effort;
It is my simple belief that God is as close to us as the breath we are taking. Prayer combined with other strategies of mental health, can help us to continue to repent and to grow in love of God and to grow in love of each other.
When you see me at a meeting, ask me how my prayer and walking is going!
Rev. Mike Lynch – CARE Committee Member,
Anglican Diocese of Edmonton – St. Aidan and St. Hilda – Rexboro, Alberta