My mother has schizophrenia. Her illness 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. 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 our own. I grew to understand that the church's lack of engagement was affecting many more people than just my family.
What holds us back?
We have many historically based misconceptions about mental illness in our culture. Most people don't know enough about it to feel confident discussing it. Even now, brain science is still an emerging frontier. The causes and remedies for mental illnesses are not always known, so the sense of mystery around them—a sense that is partly outdated and partly legitimate—intimidates many people.
Many also feel intimidated because they don't have the professional education and qualifications to feel confident in helping. 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, however, that often keeps us from offering that same kind of help.
That “something” is stigma. In both our culture at large and in the church, we respond differently to mental illness than we do to other afflictions. We tend to marginalize people with mental illness, to write them off as incapable of contributing to our communities—and we fear them. This stigma is reinforced in popular culture: our ongoing silence on mental illness and also the way we speak about it when it does come up. While this pattern is starting to change very slowly, we have a long way to go—and I believe the church should be leading the way in rejecting stigma and irrational fears regarding mental illness.
Learn how to help—mentally and spiritually
In the church, mental illness tends to raise difficult spiritual questions that we don't always know how to answer: How accountable are people for their behavior when they have symptoms of mental illness? Does demon possession cause mental illness? Why does God allow the kind of suffering that can cause despair, delusions, and overwhelming anxiety? Why isn't following Jesus enough to heal mental illness?
In my bookTroubled Minds, I addressed this question and fell back on the sensible advice of Dr. Archibald Hart, Professor of Psychology at Fuller Theological Seminary: "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." In many cases, a person may have both mental illness and spiritual issues to deal with. The best way to find out whether a mental illness is present is to refer the person to a mental-health professional. If the person has a treatable mental illness, that treatment can help clear the way for more effectively addressing spiritual issues.
But people who are receiving mental-health treatment have spiritual needs, too. And mental illness is often accompanied by spiritual crisis. It's critical to stick with those who are suffering from both, providing Christian care.