Friday Five Interview: Amy Simpson
How should the Church respond to mental illness? We asked the author of the new book, Troubled Minds.

For today's entry in the Friday Five interview series, we catch up with Amy Simpson.

Amy Simpson is editor of Christianity Today's Gifted for Leadership and author of numerous resources for Christian ministry. Her latest book is Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church's Mission (InterVarsity Press). You can find her at AmySimpsonOnline.com and on Twitter: @aresimpson.

Today we chat with Amy about the difficult subject of mental illness and the Church's response:

-Daniel

What prompted you to write about and study mental illness in the church?

My family was affected by mental illness. My mother has schizophrenia, which had a profound effect on our family, especially when I was a young teenager. Like many other families, we stayed pretty quiet about what we were experiencing, and we didn't receive the support we needed from the church. My dad was a pastor for 10 years, and after that we were involved laypeople. But many people didn't know what was happening. And the church leaders who probably wanted to help us didn't know how. No one ever talked about mental illness at church.

In my own pursuit of healing, I worked 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 grew to understand that the church's lack of engagement was affecting many more people than just my family. God 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 interviewed several people because I wanted to represent more perspectives and experiences than just my own family's. But my family's experience was the starting point.

Recent tragedies such as the death of Rick Warren's son have raised awareness of mental illness among evangelicals. Yet we're still a bit hesitant to talk about it. Why is that?

Culturally, we have many historically based misconceptions about mental illness. Most people don't know enough about it to feel confident discussing it. And even now, brain science is still an emerging frontier. The causes and remedies for mental illnesses are not always known. So I think the sense of mystery around it, partly outdated and partly legitimate, intimidates people.

Most people also feel intimidated because they don't have the professional education and qualifications to feel confident in helping. But most of us aren't medically qualified to help someone with a broken leg or cancer either, yet we know we can offer our support. There's something about mental illness that often keeps us from offering that same kind of support.

May 17, 2013

Displaying 1–10 of 13 comments

sheerahkahn

May 22, 2013  9:28pm

"I would suspect a 12-step group would be pretty close to essential to your making meaningful progress in recovery." I actually had a friend of friend who pulled us in...he was a Vietnam vet who had a soft-spot for young, suicidal idiots who didn't think they had any problems. Still makes me smile thinking about him...tough SoB, but he was able to reverse our cranal/anal inversions, and for that...I was able to survive my 20's...miraculously looking back on the idiocy I barely survived...perhaps, G-d used him as an interceptor...yeah...probably did...interesting that I'm thinking about that now...hmm.. Right...where was I...um...oh, yes...I don't have the problem I did with the bottle that I used too...he, the Vet, had a way of working us through that little...episode...five...six years...good lord, was it that long...no, actually, seven...he grabbed me when I was nineteen, and I was twenty-six when I actually made it pass that...incident...though he was still involved with me, and my friends well into our thirties. The irony is that when he died, he died from drinking too much...he saved us, but we couldn't save him. I will continue seeking my answer...it's what drives me to learn and know more...perhaps, as I think about this...this is what G-d intended all along...that would be frustratingly annoying, but yet in line with his MO...hmm, now that is extremely intriguing and interesting possibility... You have been very kind to me Karen, and I don't even know you...interesting...I wish you the best of whatever G-d gives to those have the patience of his spirit...I know myself well enough to know that I do try the patience of everyone who has had the misfortune of meeting me. Yes, I am done in this thread...I have much to think about. See you in whatever future thread appears interesting, Karen.

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Karen

May 21, 2013  10:49pm

Sheer, in mentioning things that didn't make sense to me in some of your other comments was just that some of those seemed to be exaggeratedly overreactive and coming from a rather dark place. That would make sense if depression, rage, and physical pain are struggles for you and more in control at some times than others. None of us are always rational, and even when we are most rational, there's more going on than just the rational . . . if that makes sense. I suffered from allergy and weather-induced migraines when I was a kid and that was no picnic. I can't imagine one going on for more than a few hours in one day! I certainly don't intend to give the impression that simple prayer works just like that overnight. My point was just that reprogramming the mind and finding a way to interrupt "stinkin' thinkin'" is one piece of the puzzle that seems to be critical in making progress in recovery. I was just intending to point out that this classical Christian remedy and those proposed by your secular therapists seemed to have something in common. Spiritual remedies like the practice of the "Jesus prayer" are little steps that we work into our lives bit by bit and, ideally, not without the help and oversight of some kind of spiritual mentor. The practical aids to "working out our salvation with fear and trembling" discovered through trial and error by Christians over the centuries aren't expected to be a sort of magic pill that works outside of the fullness of the practice of the Orthodox Christian faith (involvement in its communal and sacramental life and liturgy, etc.), and one key piece of the puzzle has always been having a spiritual "father" (or "mother") working with you (i.e., a more mature experienced Christian who can mentor you–kind of "God with skin on" coming alongside to help through the grace of the Holy Spirit). From what I have learned (and this partly from my own experience as well as the experiences of others), one of the best things for those of us dealing with addictions (whatever those addictions are–really any sin that has control in your life is an addiction of sorts and all of us are in stages of recovery from some kind of sin) is a 12-step recovery support group. As you probably know, the 12 steps are a system also derived through experiential trial and error by Christians using the Bible as their primary source of guidance and which has a lot of overlap with the classical Christian tradition of spiritual "eldership" and discipleship. We need the support and experience of folks who have been through the same thing and learned some practical wisdom along the way, who can support others and tell them the truth without judging them. I probably don't need to tell you that being a Lone Ranger can be a pretty difficult place at the best of times, and it's hell in the worst of them. All that is to say I hope you have, or can find, some good support with your struggles. If you've never been a part of one, I would suspect a 12-step group would be pretty close to essential to your making meaningful progress in recovery. On those days when you have just blown it and hit bottom again and are wondering how in the world God can be good with you, I hope you will remind yourself about what Jesus told Peter about the nature of forgiveness–its not just "7 times" (generous, complete), it's "70 times 7" (infinitely generous and perfectly complete, i.e., never-ending). God certainly would not ask us to do for others what He is not prepared to do for us. Kind regards.

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Jack

May 21, 2013  6:09pm

I was a pastor for 8 years before I developed depression and anxiety. The church was ill prepared to support me and I couldn't go on. I nearly lost my marriage and my life. I'm well again today and worker as a family mental health support worker with others who are going through similar things.

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Evang. Kola Adepoju

May 21, 2013  1:33pm

Thank you for this wonderful divinely inspired article. As an Evangelist, it is always a grey area to preach about especially now that many care to listen to is how to survive and come out of recession. Unfortunately, when we load our minds about troubles of this world, we inherently compound the ability of our hearts to carr the burden of our minds. Many are dying quietly because of timidity. it is time to talk about mental illnesses. it is time to help people going through the trauma . Please visit www.carematefoundation.com to see what we are doing in Africa to help apart from preaching. You too can h elp. noone is immuned

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sheerahkahn

May 21, 2013  1:13pm

"It explains a lot for me about some of your posts on other threads that don't always make a lot of sense to me (outside of the context you have just explained)." I'm not sure what that means, but I will say that for the most part people can be irritatingly obtuse when the obvious stands on their toes, myself not excluded from that as I tend to dislike in others what I find in myself...which, thinking on it now, makes me wonder why I often feel like Y'shua's description of a scribe who knows the bible inside and out, and yet can't see the forest for the trees. "First, I could not, personally, avoid the kind of doubt about God "being good with me" while I retained certain Protestant assumptions and theories about the meaning/nature of Christ's Atonement...[con't to the end]...This certainly seems to run parallel to the advice you have received from (even non-Christian) counselors." I find little to intellectually disagree with you on, however, a small part of me wants to say "well, Augustine was a bit of a nut himself..." and yet a goodly portion of my concern is that this doesn't settle the soul much...like I said, intellectually, I'm good, beatific, and can pull every citation out of the bible that lists the "Oh yeah, baby, you and G-d are golden!" but... hmm...debating whether to put this in black and white... You see, when my...thoughts go dark...I rage. In sports, I could focus that rage, slam into another player, floor him, and after the vertigo wore off...feel the calmness of emotional release...for a short bit...then rinse and repeat...kind of a cyclic effect of snarling release of primal rage that left me exhausted both mentally and physically...along with the headache that would last for days, the injuries that are still with me today decades later, and lastly the multiple concussions...I still get those headaches, migraines, which will last for a day or two. My problem then, and later on in life, though, was that emotional wreckage came with me off the field as well...so...ALCOHOL! I hate to say this, but some mental and emotional peace can be found at the bottom of a bottle. So I drank a lot to sedate that rage...but herein is the thing...when the rage is gone, sedated, when the mind is back whole again, albeit in a pickled state, there is the guilt...waiting for me, greeting me in that familiar way with a trip down that deep, dark hole of guilt. And the question that floats like a turd on top of that cess pool of guilt is, "How can you be good with G-d being like that?" I'm sure some think prayer will work wonders, but when the prayer seems pointless, when the raw display of power of rage seems more powerful than a simple petition to a G-d who at the time seems far more distant and capricious in his concern for everything that has nothing to do with my immediate problem...how does that prayer stop that rage? And how does that prayer stop the sink hole of despair that I, and others like me find ourselves in when the rage is gone...and the ill will expressed in that rage echoes forever? My experience is that I understand why people kill themselves...the depression isn't the part where the rage is all present, no, it's the part at the end, where the person stands in the middle of this crumbling sinkhole of guilt they find themselves standing on, and no amount of scrabbling for an edge to cling too helps...and though I know your offering help...prayer just seems more of that crumbling edge that I'm digging through to find something solid to hold on too. And no, I have no intention of harming myself...that opportunity came and went in my 20's...I made a conscientious decision to remain alive...I chose to live. I chose to get married...fortunately, my will is far stronger than my depression. But it is a struggle between the intellectual "we're good with G-d" and the emotional "You are so hosed there, buddy" that dogs me, that whispers to me that perhaps I'm just fooling myself...and that, more than anything,

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Karen

May 20, 2013  3:44pm

Tim, I agree the theories and findings from the disciplines of psychology and psychotherapy need to be sifted in the light of Christian teaching and require the use of spiritual discernment to apply or embrace appropriately (and to know what should be discarded or rejected). On the other hand, I think my last paragraph to Sheerakhan also applies in reference to your comment as well. This frequently is not a black and white issue, as good faith attempts to understand human nature (and other aspects of creation) even on the part of those who do not profess a belief in the supernatural, let alone personal faith in Jesus Christ, can yield insights into the truth of things which harmonize with what we understand from the Scriptures, and which are, therefore, not in and of themselves, inherently "Godless." In my psychotherapy class when I was an Evangelical Christian psychology major at a major Evangelical institution of higher learning, our prof related the findings of a particular study of three very different approaches to counseling/psychotherapy with mild to moderately depressed patients. The study found that there was no significant differences between the three approaches to counseling in terms of their effectiveness in treating the depression, but the one variable that did best correlate with the effectiveness of the therapy and the degree of recovery from the depression was the perception on the part of the patient that the therapist was empathetic and caring. IOW, the capacity of the therapist for showing love in a meaningful way to the patient was the one variable that best predicted a favorable outcome! What do you know–apparently love has the power to heal! Now, I would say that this confirms basic Christian beliefs, wouldn't you? But it wasn't a study conducted either by or with Christians as far as I know. Our prof then challenged us with this question: Who would be the better therapist–a professing "Christian" who nevertheless lacked a capacity for showing empathy and caring, or a "non-Christian" who was very skilled in this capacity? Similarly, I have met professing Christians who would steadfastly affirm all those tenets of faith most Christians recognize as expressing "orthodox" articles of belief and who certainly acknowledge the supernatural, but who lack wisdom and discernment about how all that applies, especially in the more complex and thorny situations that arise from the sin-woundedness of the world we live in–especially in the area of mental illness.

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Karen

May 20, 2013  10:00am

Sheer, God bless you for your candidness here. It explains a lot for me about some of your posts on other threads that don't always make a lot of sense to me (outside of the context you have just explained). Your struggles with depression and doubt (as well as the partial remedies you have found) is quite familiar to my experience as well (though for each of us some of the contributing factors may be different). Two things I will note from my own experience, which I hope will be helpful to you and others as well: First, I could not, personally, avoid the kind of doubt about God "being good with me" while I retained certain Protestant assumptions and theories about the meaning/nature of Christ's Atonement for us that stem from theological developments un the West, starting with certain of Augustine's speculations and then continuing with developments of those the school of Scholasticism and especially as developed through Anselm's Medieval Roman Catholic theory of "satisfaction" upon which the Reformers built their "penal substitution" explanation of how the Cross works. As I have mentioned on other threads, I have since discovered these explanations, especially as popularly understood within much of Evangelicalism, are quite far removed from what the Bible actually says in its own context and from what the earliest Christians believed (although these frameworks have been superimposed on certain of the Apostle Paul's statements, and he has been misread as teaching this, and it has also read back into the OT sacrificial system). You're probably familiar with the "Christus Victor" and "Ransom" theories of how the Atonement worked of the earlier period, and this, rather than penal substitution, is still the predominating model for understanding the nature of the Atonement and our salvation in Christ in Eastern Orthodoxy. Relying on what the Bible actually says as well as the earlier "Christus Victor" paradigm for understanding of Christ's atoning work has gone a looonnnng way for me personally to removing any doubt in my mind that God is eternally, unequivocably and irrevocably for us (even "while we were still sinners"), always and forever predisposed to extend grace and mercy and forgive even the sins I have not yet recognized, confessed, or overcome (as we see even in Christ's own words from the Cross). Even in the OT, He does not "need" blood sacrifices in the sense many Evangelicals understand that, in order to forgive sinners and effectively reverse or suspend their condemnation and punishment, as is shown in the story of Ninevah's repentance in the book of Jonah (and, doubtless many other narratives in the OT as well–Psalm 51 also comes to mind). Here, the Ninevites did not need to offer blood sacrifices before God forgave them and reversed their condemnation: they merely repented (expressed in this case through fasting) and prayed for forgiveness. OT sacrifice was a means of expressing faith through obedience and a prefigurement of Christ's sacrifice–it was not a means of placating an angry, vengeful deity and changing His desires (from that to punish to that to forgive). The Orthodox believe that you can explain the whole nature of our salvation and understand how to be reconciled to God using Christ's Parable of the Prodigal Son alone. Note the disposition of the father in this parable toward both of his sons. It is all the more poignant to me considering that for a first-century Middle-Eastern patriarch to hike up his robes and run to meet a son who had so unspeakably and publicly dishonored him was unheard of in that culture and considered a completely inappropriate self-debasement of his own dignity. It was normally a concession only allowed for a mother to do. But Jesus uses this to illustrate what God is like. I'm indebted greatly for my understanding here to an article on this subject by Kenneth E. Bailey printed in the October 26, 1998 issue of Christianity Today Magazine. Perhaps there is a link to this wond

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Tim

May 18, 2013  5:32pm

"Unless you are trained in psychopathology … the most responsible action you can take is to refer the troubled person to a psychologist or psychiatrist for diagnosis." How much confidence can we place in this diagnosis when much of this comes with a God/ supernatural denying framework and foundation? Even if the person diagnosing is a believer his tools may be Godless.

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Paul Walker

May 18, 2013  4:02pm

I wish this were more printable with out the side information. Most stuff by CT does no have this problem.

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sheerahkahn

May 18, 2013  11:41am

I feel rather inept here, but for whatever it is worth due to my past alcoholic indiscretions and multiple concussions from sports, I now deal with depression on a too often, constant basis which before I got the help I needed, I would hide in my room till things just...I don't know..."balanced" out. Now, though, with help I've been given the tools to move through the more difficult parts of those moments. I think this topic deserves more space...maybe, perhaps Paul Pastor, or Marshall can find more articles dealing with this issue as it seems to me, at least, that my biggest struggle is: Am I still good with G-d, or am I just deceiving myself? One of the struggles I have spiritually is self-doubt...I know intellectually the bible, the books, the background of the people, etc...and through all that I "think" I know G-d and I think he "knows" me. I know intellectually the "He who believes in me will have eternal life" and yet self-doubt says, "yeah, you say you believe, but dude...look at yourself...you are a train wreck spiritually, and emotionally...and your past...even you know you can't escape the Law of Unintended Consequences." The advice I get from the clinicians (non-Christian) is, "when negative thoughts begin, reset your thinking, and do not think those thoughts. Read, write, think of something constructive." But not one can help with my spiritual self-doubt...am I or am I not good with G-d. So perhaps, in future articles, you guys in Ur can find writers/pastors/people who can address this question of: In what tangible way "Yes, you're good with G-d" can people like me assess our position other than the intangible "believe"? I think this would also help people who don't have depression, but struggle with that self-doubt as well.

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