Most of us know someone who is in counseling, on medication, or has even taken his or her own life as a result of a mental illness. There are many difficult issues for Christians to talk about, and mental health would certainly be near the top of that list.
Yet, this is a conversation the Church needs to have. Suicide may be one of the most complex and demanding topics of all. Over the past few years, the discussion has felt forced, especially when the event is connected to high-profile suicides of prominent Christian leaders or their family members and close associates.
While the circumstances in these situations are varied, the question of mental health always comes up; and when we talk about mental illness and suicide, it immediately creates a unique challenge for believers. The question is “Why?” Why is it uniquely challenging for us to address issues often associated with mental illness?
The answer is, at least partly, because we know God heals. He not only restores our spiritual wounds, but many also believe God physically heals… at times in miraculous ways.
So, as people of faith, we accept the miraculous, know of freedom in Christ, experience the forgiveness of sin, and acknowledge supernatural healing. However, we have all seen people, even believers, struggle with severe mental problems. They affect them emotionally, spiritually and relationally, and sometimes deliverance does not seem to come in supernatural ways. The person wants help. His or her family seeks answers.
Others wonder what is going on. So, it makes for awkward and limited conversations. As leaders, we often end up avoiding mental illness concerns altogether, or we fly by the seat of our spiritual pants in response when help is needed.
Some Personal History
I remember as a young pastor I did not know how to handle mental illness. We had a gentleman in our church who loved the Lord with all of his heart. He had a deep passion for God, but would then spiral down into these seasons of a diagnosed bipolar disorder.
The struggle was so intense he would end up disconnected emotionally and mentally, unable to function in day-to-day living. Even after crying out to the Lord and reading the Psalms, he would say, “God help me in the midst of this!” Neither of us knew how to respond to his condition.
As a 25-year-old, I had heard mental illness was just something people needed to pray about, which we did. Never had I seen a man pray harder to be set free from such tormenting cycles than this man, but he was not delivered.
In the end, he took his own life. His family was left confused, in pain, and deeply grieving. As a pastor, though certainly not dealing with the same level of grief or pain they were, I came to grips with the reality that I was unprepared to effectively address mental health issues within my congregation.
A New Awareness
Thankfully, many Christians and clergy members are now taking mental illness much more seriously. Numerous ministries and church leaders are working to equip pastors and congregations to handle emotional and psychological distress. One way we can be prepared is to better understand these realities that surely exist among our churches across the country.
LifeWay Research, where I served as Executive Director, conducted a survey in partnership with Focus on the Family and an anonymous donor to gauge the perceptions of pastors, churches and those suffering from mental illness on a wide range of related topics. The following is a brief synopsis of what we uncovered:
1 – Pastors’ Views on Mental Illness and the Church
When we surveyed Protestant pastors, the first thing we discovered is that they do, in fact, have experience with mental illnesses. Approximately three out of four pastors said they knew at least one family member, friend or congregant who had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
Close to the same number (74%) said they knew someone diagnosed with clinical depression. More than half (57%) said they knew at least three people who fell into that category. In terms of counseling, almost six in 10 (59%) said they had counseled at least one person who was eventually diagnosed with an acute mental illness.
Perhaps even more important, 23% of pastors indicated they had battled a mental illness of some kind on a personal level, including 12% who said it was formally diagnosed. These findings are confirmed by the National Alliance on Mental Illness and similar numbers within the general population.
Because of that, I am thankful for many leaders who have recently come forward and are more willing to be transparent about their own struggles. A couple years back, Phil Ryken used his presidential speech at the convocation ceremony of Wheaton College to share his battle with depression.
Mark Dance, Associate Vice President of Pastoral Leadership at LifeWay, shared how he almost walked away from the ministry due to clinical depression, but was helped through the process by his doctor and a therapist.
The vast majority of pastors today, unlike myself in the early days of ministry, recognize the issue as being more complicated than simply praying away the mental illness. Only 1% said medication should never be considered as a treatment option or only be viewed as a last resort, and that psychological therapy should never be used. More than seven in 10 (71%) said it should be used in conjunction with spiritual principles.
Pastors indicated they wanted to help and believed the Church should be a resource. Almost three quarters (74%) disagreed with the notion they were reluctant to become involved with those suffering from acute mental illness (41% strongly disagreed). Ninety percent believed the Church has a moral and spiritual responsibility to provide resources and support to those with mental illness and their families.
Over half (56%) strongly agreed. Only 15% of pastors said their churches did not have any levels of care that congregations typically provide in this regard. Finally, just 7% said they had not used any of the common resources available on how to better care for those affected by mental illness.
2 – A Gap in Communication
In spite of the statistics shared above, pastors still do not speak to their congregations about mental illness on any kind of regular basis. Nearly half (49%) said they rarely, or never, speak on the subject to their churches in sermons or large group messages. Only a third (33%) spoke to their church bodies more than once a year.
This may highlight the disconnect felt between what pastors say their churches offer and what family members, and those suffering with mental illness, express they actually experience in their local congregations.
3 – Family Members’ Views on Mental Illness and the Church
While 75% of those with a family member suffering with acute mental illness said their churches had been supportive, they also wanted to see additional resources. When asked if they believed local churches should offer more to assist families who are facing mental illness, at least half of the family members said “yes” in six of the seven areas questioned. At least 60% said local churches should provide support groups for family members, help families find local resources for care, and simply talk about it openly so the topic is not so taboo.
4 – A Gap in Awareness
There was a significant gap in what pastors said their churches provided and what family members said was available. In six of the nine typical types of care referenced in the survey, fewer family members than pastors believed their churches offered such help.
This was particularly true for churches maintaining a list of experts to which people could be referred. Almost seven in 10 (68%) pastors said their churches had such a list. Less than three in 10 (28%) family members had the same perception.
Amy Simpson, author and senior editor of Leadership Journal, who has written extensively on the subject of mental health and whose mother suffers from schizophrenia, says family members need the Church’s help to “break the silence.” She maintains those living with mental illness, whether their own or someone else’s, “need to speak and be heard in church and elsewhere. They need the Church to break its own silence as well.”
This silence compounds the suffering of the mentally ill and their family members. “So many have allowed stigma and fear to prevent acknowledgement that mental illness exists within the walls of churches,” says Simpson. “The silence sends a clear message that God is not interested in their suffering, serious problems have no place in the Church, and our faith has no answers for hardships like theirs.”
Simpson further acknowledges that ministry to those affected by mental illness “is not easy, quick or fashionable. It may not even be rewarding, but it is right and fitting for people called to love as Jesus loves, to serve as ‘the pleasing aroma of Christ’ in this world, and to represent his healing grace.”
5 – The Views of Those with Mental Illness
Much like their family members, those personally suffering from mental illness and who also regularly attend church believe more could be done to help them.
Here are the ways a majority said the Church could assist them:
- 74%: Help families find local resources for support and dealing with the illness
- 63%: Talk about it openly so the topic is not so taboo
- 61%: Improve people’s understanding of what mental illness is and what to expect
- 58%: Provide training for the Church to understand mental illness
- 57%: Increase awareness of how prevalent mental illness is today
For many suffering from a mental illness, they simply want to be treated as people and not outcasts. Overall, 70% of Protestants with a mental illness wanted fellow church members to merely get to know them as a friend. For consistent church attenders, that number climbed to 78%. They just want to be treated like a person, which sometimes even those in ministry can forget to do.
How Should the Church Respond?
Looking at the results from our survey is helpful, but it is more important to consider the people involved and how we might serve them better. In conclusion, let me share a few easy fixes we, as the body of Christ, could consider implementing.
First, talk about the issues. Both family members and those with a disorder say one of the biggest helps would be the Church working to erase the stigmatization of mental illness. If a pastor has suffered, or is currently wrestling with a mental illness, let him or her share the story with the congregation.Regardless, we should be sharing how the Gospel and Christian faith speak of hope and healing.
Second, make sure the congregation knows exactly what resources are available to them, both within the local church and community. According to Simpson, among those who have pursued treatment for their mental illnesses, 25% first sought out a member of the clergy. “That is a higher percentage than those who have gone to psychiatrists, general medical doctors, or anyone else,” she says.
Connect individually with those who come to church for help and speak openly with the congregation to encourage people suffering in silence to come forward. There is a serious problem when 68% of pastors say their churches maintain a list of experts for referrals, but only 28% of families with mentally ill loved ones are aware their churches have such a list. These are easily correctable situations.
Other issues may require a greater investment of time and resources, but they are needed and certainly worth the effort. Dr. Matthew Stanford is a professor of psychology, neuroscience, and biomedical studies at Baylor University, as well as the Co-founder and Executive Director of a non-profit organization that trains churches on ministering to those living with mental illness and their families.
He says the Church’s role is three-fold: Relieve suffering, reveal Christ, and restore lives. To do this, he says the Church “needs to treat individuals with mental illness the same way it treats anybody with an illness. Offer a supportive care structure, help them spiritually, help them understand where God is in the situation, and help them connect more fully to God in their suffering.”
My challenge to the church is that we might move beyond the whispering, the silence, the shame, and the stigma. Instead, let us understand and show others that Jesus came seeking, saving, and serving the lost and broken people around him. We honor Christ when we join in his mission by doing the same.
Hopefully, we can learn from the ongoing conversation around mental illness and the research insights we are discovering. In this way, we can shape a new, more helpful approach to those who need care and ministry.
This article was originally published in the Vol. 21, No. 2 edition of Christian Counseling Today magazine, a quarterly publication of the American Association of Christian Counselors, www.AACC.net.
Ed Stetzer holds the Billy Graham Distinguished Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College, serves as Dean of the School of Mission, Ministry, and Leadership at Wheaton College, is executive director of the Billy Graham Center, and publishes church leadership resources through Mission Group.