A recent study by Baylor University showed “that mental illness is not only prevalent in church communities, but is accompanied by significant distress that often goes unnoticed.” The study found mental illness present in 27% of families, with those families reporting twice as many stressors on average–stressors such as financial strain and problems balancing work and family. [i]
“While families with a member who has mental illness have less involvement in faith practices, they would like their congregation to provide assistance with those issues. However, the rest of the church community seemed to overlook their need entirely. In fact, the study found that while help from the church with depression and mental illness was the second priority of families with mental illness, it ranked 42nd on the list of requests from families that did not have a family member with mental illness.” [ii]
The study also found that mental illness of a family member can destroy the family’s connection with the religious community, leading many affected families to leave the church and their faith behind.
“The difference in response is staggering, especially given the picture of distress painted by the data: families with mental illness reported twice as many problems and tended to ask for assistance with more immediate or crisis needs compared to other families,” said study co-author Dr. Matthew Stanford, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Baylor.
Study co-author Dr. Diana Garland, dean of Baylor’s School of Social Work said:
“Families with mental illness stand to benefit from their involvement within a congregation, but our findings suggest that faith communities fail to adequately engage these families because they lack awareness of the issues and understanding of the important ways that they can help…. Mental illness is not only prevalent in church communities, but is accompanied by significant distress that often goes unnoticed. Partnerships between mental health providers and congregations may help to raise awareness in the church community and simultaneously offer assistance to struggling families.”
What the Church Can Do
1. Get Educated
Although a survey by The National Association of Mental Illness found that “80 percent or more recognize that depression is a medical illness affecting people of all ages, races and socioeconomic groups and that it can be treated,” the stigma endures. “Almost 20 percent of the public consider the illness a sign of personal weakness and 23 percent would be embarrassed to tell others if a family member were diagnosed with depression.”
As I did research for this article, I saw mental health websites recommending that persons with mental illness seek help from clergy. (Ex: The NIMH page Where can I go for help lists “clergy” as a source of help.) Therefore, clergy and church staff must become educated about mental illness in order to be of help to people and families affected by it.
Mental Health America describes mental illness:
A mental illness is a disease that causes mild to severe disturbances in thought and/or behavior, resulting in an inability to cope with life’s ordinary demands and routines. There are more than 200 classified forms of mental illness. Some of the more common disorders are depression, bipolar disorder, dementia, schizophrenia and anxiety disorders. Symptoms may include changes in mood, personality, personal habits and/or social withdrawal.
Mental health problems may be related to excessive stress due to a particular situation or series of events. As with cancer, diabetes and heart disease, mental illnesses are often physical as well as emotional and psychological. Mental illnesses may be caused by a reaction to environmental stresses, genetic factors, biochemical imbalances, or a combination of these. With proper care and treatment many individuals learn to cope or recover from a mental illness or emotional disorder.
For education on mental illnesses see these and other sites:
- National Institute of Mental Health
- National Alliance on Mental Illness
- Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance
- American Psychiatry Association
- Mental Health America
Dr. Adrian Warnock has written a series on mental illness containing the following helpful articles:
- What causes mental illness?
- Can a Christian get depressed?
- What is depression and how is it treated?
- What are mental illnesses and disorders? What effects do they have?
- How can I recognize mental illness?
- What can we do to reduce the risk of suicide?
Education about mental illness removes misconceptions and prejudice while fostering compassion and empathy. It helps you accept the fact that the person has a legitimate illness—as much as cancer or diabetes is a medical condition, so is mental illness. Learning about the disorder enables you to more effectively help and minister to the sufferer and caregivers.
2. Reach out to those with mental illness.
Isolation increases the risk with mental illnesses. Reach out to offer emotional support, understanding, encouragement and help.
Engage him or her in conversation. Listen carefully. Be understanding. Let them know you care.
Talk about more than mental health, though. Having a mental health problem is only an experience the person is having. He or she is not defined by their mental health condition.
Spend time with them. It lets them know you care. It can also help you understand what they’re going through.
Never dismiss feelings, but point out realities and offer hope. Avoid phrases like “Cheer up”, “I’m sure it’ll pass” and “Pull yourself together.” Something like, “I’m sorry,” or “I can’t imagine how that must feel” would be better.
Give them time to respond. Mental health symptoms vary from day to day. Sometimes the sufferer might prefer to take their time responding to your contact. Or they might prefer a text or email so they can reply in a moment that is good for them. It’s important that they know you care and you’ll be there when they’re ready to get in touch.
Don’t forget them. As a reminder for yourself, schedule a repeating appointment on your calendar in which you will call to check on them, meet them for coffee, or visit their home. Consider programming a reminder in your phone or calendar software.
Help him or her get out and be active.
- Invite him or her for walks, to the movies, to a ballgame and other activities. Arrange a time to go to the gym together.
- Encourage participation in activities he or she once enjoyed, such as hobbies, sports, or cultural activities.
- Do not push them to undertake too much too soon. Too many demands can increase feelings of failure.
Be prepared for antisocial behavior. Remember that mental illnesses are episodic. Symptoms vary in intensity. There may be times in which a person’s condition causes them to be antisocial. It may be difficult for them to respond to your efforts. In addition to praying for wisdom from God as to how you can best engage them, contact local professionals and ask them for guidance and suggestions.
Pray for them and with them. God answers when we pray.
The symptoms of depression or mental illness make it difficult for those who are ill to pray for themselves. Even if they’re able to pray, it makes a difference when others join them in prayer.
Haven’t you noticed in your own life that although you pray for your need, something changes when another person joins you in prayer for the matter? It often makes a huge difference when we agree with someone in prayer!
“If two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven” (Mt. 18:19).
Encourage others to intercede. It’s vital that they be able to protect his or her confidentiality. Intercessory prayer is a way for the church body to show their care and compassion—and their commitment to their hurting brother or sister. This is an immeasurable source of comfort and strength for the one who is hurting, especially when the path to wholeness is long. In addition to this, prayer is a way to make a difference—a way to affect change in the lives of those affected by the illness.
A personal example:
I pray with a group of women once a week—women who listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit and His leading as they pray. Although my brain chemistry is much better now days, I occasionally have days when I’m not myself. Maybe once or twice a year, I will be in the prayer meeting and my brain chemistry is off…and I know I’m not my normal self emotionally. I’m more down, weepy, sad, pessimistic.
One time the women gathered behind me, laid their hands on me, and began praying as the Spirit led them. I don’t remember what they prayed, but I remember how God answered.
As I was driving home from church that night, out of the blue, it hit me that I had taken the last capsules from a bottle of medication a few days prior and gotten so busy that I forgot to get the new bottle out of the counter. It was just an amino acid, but it affects mood. I don’t know how long it would have been before I realized this if it hadn’t been for the prayers of my friends.
Also, in the days prior, one of my antibiotic medications had changed. Any change, even a slight reduction, in this medication leaves me very depressed. Driving home that night, because of the prayers of my sisters in Christ, God gave me wisdom on how to deal with this until my body adjusted.
The next morning I was already 75% better. Two days later, I was back to my normal self…all because of the prayers of my friends. My low-grade depression wasn’t a crisis moment, but it demonstrates that God answers when we pray.
Your intercession may:
- cause things to supernaturally change in the person’s circumstances or brain chemistry.
- result in them, or their doctors, being given wisdom in addressing their needs.
- break demonic oppression that has seized upon vulnerabilities in brain chemistry.
- result in God giving the person fresh endurance, hope, and strength.
- result in God giving them a fresh sense of His presence, speaking to them through scripture—giving them a deep experience of Himself, the most beautiful of treasures.
As you pray, God will answer and intervene in some way.
4. If necessary, encourage them to seek help.
Concerning depression, when it lingers and is more than the sadness or discouragement we all experience, encourage the sufferer to seek professional help from a Christian psychologist or psychiatrist. Assure them that clinical depression is very common; it’s estimated that 35 to 40 million Americans living today will suffer from major depression at some time during their lives, and half this amount suffer from recurring depression symptoms.
Encourage them to work with medical professionals as you work with them spiritually. Remind them that with time, treatment, and prayer the depression will lift.
It would be helpful for you to compile a list of local psychiatrists, psychologists, counselors, and therapists in your area. Call them and ask:
- How they handle spiritual questions from patients.
- If it is a psychologist, ask if they have a specialty. If they don’t, ask if they will work with someone who is challenged with depression. If they say yes, ask whether they refer their clients for medication evaluations, or use counseling only.
- If the sufferer has a history of trauma or abuse, ask if the therapist is trained in such areas.
Keep your list of professionals for future reference. Make sure your church leadership knows to refer mental illness issues to you. [iii]
If you suspect there is risk of suicide, err on the side of too much intervention. (See #5 on the next post: “What NOT to Do.”) Dr. Adrian Warnock says it is, “Far better to take someone in for an assessment and be told that the doctor believes they are fine than to not act.”
5. Share kindness practically.
Elijah sat down under a tree and told God he was ready to die. God answered him by first providing for his immediate physical needs: hunger, thirst, and exhaustion.
You can be God’s instrument of provision for the sufferer by doing such things as:
- Providing assistance in getting to doctor’s appointments.
- As mentioned above, invite them out for walks, outings and other activities. Keep trying if he or she declines, but don’t push him or her to take on too much too soon.
- Help them with their needs—run an errand, do grocery shopping, make phone calls, help with tasks that are cognitively overwhelming (example: filling out forms), take children to activities.
- Look for ways to go beyond their needs to things that might brighten their day and be a reminder that someone cares.
It’s alright to ask what you could do that would help. In fact, they will find it comforting—and a sign of your genuine desire to help—that you care enough to ask
6. Remind them of God’s truth.
Mental illness affects your perspective—even your spiritual perspective. The chemical imbalance causes feelings of anger and hopelessness, which often transfers to feelings of anger at God and hopelessness that He will ever intervene. It can also cause feelings of guilt and worthlessness.
Lovingly assure them of God’s love, compassion, mercy, and forgiveness. Show them how God sees them. Remind them of His mighty power, his holiness and interest in the details of their lives. Make sure they realize these facts are not influenced by their perceptions of themselves. Substantiate this with scripture, as it possesses life and power. It is medicine.
As you get to know their symptoms and afflictions, pray relevant scripture with them and give them a list of helpful scriptures to turn to in times of exacerbation or serious episode. (See Depression (4): A Few Scriptures to Pray.) They may not be able to remember or locate these scriptures, or may not be able to think of what to do in times of a serious episode. Having this list will give them a specific spiritual action to take and will make it much more possible for them to do so.
7. Minister to Caregivers.
Some of the same suggestions regarding helping the sufferer apply here, too.
Talk to them and listen. Caregivers also need support and the opportunity to talk to people who care. Both the person who has the illness and the caregivers experience grief because of the changes in their lives and the trauma experienced.
Let them share their burdens and stresses.
Pray with them about their specific needs—and if there is any area where you or the church can help, do so. For example, if they are struggling to pay for medications for the one who is ill, direct them to resources like this one. Or cover expenses that you can—like giving them a Wal-Mart or grocery store gift card; the money saved on household items can then go toward medication.
If caregivers are overwhelmed with responsibilities, offer to help. For example, offer to help with a meal, help with laundry, run an errand, take children to activities.
8. Find ways to make the sufferer and caregivers feel a part of the church, even if the chronic nature of the disease keeps them from attending.
Ways to do this include:
- Send a complimentary CD of Sunday’s sermon.
- Provide resources and information on mental illness ministries and support groups.
- Send them a card or email weekly, signed by a prayer partner, to remind them they are in your thoughts and prayers.
- If you know someone who is willing to share openly about their own mental illness, invite them to do so and share their testimony at church. (It helps tremendously, no matter what illness, to know you’re not alone—you’re not the only person experiencing your affliction.)
- Start a support group in your church.
8. Be Patient.
Improvement is possible with mental illness, but it often takes time. Treatment is individualized and often involves medication, talk-therapy, and sometimes hospitalization. Finding the right medication regimen can be difficult and frustrating for the person as sometimes it can fail, make them worse, or cause uncomfortable side effects. Medication regimens are usually adjusted in order to reach maximum benefit. This too can be complicated and frustrating for the sufferer. Sometimes medications stop working and new regimens must be found. Mental illness, as noted in a previous post, can be a difficult ailment (in my opinion, the worst of ailments).
Feelings of hopelessness are a symptom of illness, so the people who suffer don’t feel their situation will improve. Assure them that no matter how difficult it gets, you will be there beside them on their path to wholeness.
9. Maintain Hope.
Hope is contagious. As you are hopeful, it will breed hope in the sufferer and his or her family. As I’ve recounted when sharing my story, in the darkest, most hopeless, bleak, unbearable season of my illness, my mother repeatedly said one thing to me:
“Baby, it won’t always be like this. It won’t always be like this.”
By that time—after years of symptoms only worsening, in spite of having seen scores of experts—I couldn’t see anything hopeful on the horizon. (Neither could my mom, but she hoped in God!) My body and mind felt nothing but torture every second of the day; I didn’t feel I could hang on another second, much less another day. But when I would hear mom assure me that things would get better, I felt I could hang on a bit longer. If improvement was around the corner, I could hang on. Granted I was a few years into things without any sign of hope, so I knew it might take a while…but a while beat never. I could hang on.
Your hope, your confidence in God, will be contagious. It will birth the same in those affected by mental illness. Be sensitive in how you convey it—with empathy, understanding, not minimizing their suffering—but be hopeful!
Encourage yourself (and with sensitivity, encourage them) with Psalm 41:1-3. God will strengthen them on their bed of languishing. He will turn and change their bed—their situation—in their illness.
1 Blessed (happy, fortunate, to be envied) is he who considers the weak and the poor; the Lord will deliver him in the time of evil and trouble. 2 The Lord will protect him and keep him alive; he shall be called blessed in the land; and You will not deliver him to the will of his enemies. 3 The Lord will sustain, refresh, and strengthen him on his bed of languishing; all his bed You [O Lord] will turn, change, and transform in his illness” (Psalm 41:1-3, AMP).
1. Does your own church do a good job of recognizing and helping people in the congregation who suffer from depression or other mental illness?
2. Have you ever experienced mental illness? Was your church aware of your struggle, and if so, how did they act? If their reaction was less than ideal, how do you wish they would have acted?
3. Do you know someone in your community struggling with mental illness? What can you do this week to help them?
Next post: “Depression (5): Five Things the Church Should NOT Do”
OTHER POSTS IN THIS SERIES:
- Depression (1): The Most Difficult of Ailments
- Depression (2): My Own Struggle—If It Had Not Been…
- Depression (3): There is Hope and Joy in God
- Depression (4): A Few Scriptures to Pray
- Depression (6): Six Things the Church Should NOT Do for Those Affected by Mental Illness
[i] Rogers, Edward B., Matthew Stanford and Diana R. Garland. “The effects of mental illness on families within faith communities.” Mental Health, Religion & Culture Volume 15. Issue 3 (2012): pp. 301-313
[ii] Science Daily: Church Congregations Can Be Blind to Mental Illness, Study Suggests
[iii] Idea from Ministry and Illness: 8 Thoughts to Help Hurting People