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Depression (6): Six Things the Church Should NOT Do

 Blank lists of the things to do and the things NOT to do

The previous post listed nine things the church can do for those who are affected by mental illness. This is the second part of that post

Six things the church should not do for those affected by mental illness are:

1. Pretend that because mental illness is virtually invisible, it does not exist.

2. Expect the person with mental illness to “snap out of it.”

Can someone with a broken bone simply “snap out of it” and wish their bones back together without medical care? Can a cancer patient simply will their tumor away without surgery or appropriate treatment? True mental illness is a physical problem. It’s different than simply being tired or in a bad mood—something that can be overcome by choice.

The information and research I’ve read states that mental illness can have a variety of causes. It can be caused by infection, immune response, vascular issues, brain injury, genetic predisposition, hormone imbalance, chemical imbalance (which at its root may be caused by an underlying physical problem), environmental factors, or a combination of issues.

Be compassionate. Ask questions that might help you understand what both the sufferer and caregivers are experiencing. Listen attentively. Don’t hold the affliction against the sufferer as if it were an affliction of choice. Probably no one wishes they could snap out of it more than the one who is ill.  Be understanding…and patient. Never dismiss feelings, yet find a way to offer hope.

3. Discourage seeking professional help, believing addressing it from a spiritual perspective alone is sufficient.

Addressing spiritual issues is important and should be included, but when a person has a true mental illness, like any other illness, medical treatment should not be discouraged.

Help the sufferer respond to their illness in a spiritually beneficial way. Don’t exclude spiritual factors. Counsel them. Pray for them. Encourage them to take refuge in God’s Word and replace incorrect thinking patterns with biblical ones. But don’t discount the role of medical treatment. It can also be a God-given aid.

I’ve written often about the spiritual benefits that result from suffering. So yes, help them mine the gold buried in the weighty boulders of affliction.  While repentance, prayer, reading scripture, faith—responding biblically to the illness—cannot be omitted and are necessary for endurance and spiritual growth amid the suffering, most often, these are not the remedy for mental illness. Professional help and medicine are still needed.

There is definitely a spiritual battle surrounding the one who is ill; and it seems, at least to me, that brain chemistry imbalance aids the other side. I wrote about this—how physical weakness in my brain chemistry seemed to give easy access to demonic lies. There is a need for spiritual warfare and intercession in cases of mental illness. However the need for spiritual warfare does not negate the need for professional medical help. Often, when medical treatment restores brain chemistry and proper functioning, the barrage of demonic lies stops.

God-given medical help for mental illness can positively affect the spiritual struggle. It can give the person the ability to engage in worship, Bible reading, prayer, counseling, repentance, faith, etc. Similar to setting a broken leg bone and giving it time to heal so that a runner can return to marathon competition, medical treatment helps the one who suffers from a mental illness. It gives the aid and restoration necessary for them to get up and run their spiritual race.

I fully believe we can do all things through Christ.  However, the Philippians 4:13 promise doesn’t mean God never intends to use medical help as His means of provision.

4. Leave the sufferer and caregivers isolated.

In the previous post, there are suggestions for ways to reach out to them.

5. Ignore warning signs of suicide.

Never ignore comments about suicide. Listen to what he or she is saying. Take the initiative to ask that person what he or she is planning. But don’t attempt to argue him or her out of committing suicide. Rather, let the person know that you care and understand and are listening.

Warning signs of suicide risk include:

  • Threatening to hurt or kill him or herself, or talking of wanting to hurt or kill him/herself; and/or, Looking for ways to kill him/herself by seeking access to firearms, available pills, or other means; and/or,
  • Talking or writing about: death, dying or suicide; feeling hopeless or having no reason to live—no purpose in life; being a burden to others.
  • Additional Warning Signs: Increased substance use; Anxiety, agitation, unable to sleep or sleeping all the time; Behaving recklessly; Feeling trapped – like there’s no way out; Hopelessness; Withdrawal from friends, family and society; Rage, uncontrolled anger, seeking revenge; Acting reckless or engaging in risky activities, seemingly without thinking; Dramatic mood changes; Suddenly happier, calmer; Visiting or calling people to say goodbye; Making arrangements; setting one’s affairs in order; Giving things away, such as prized possessions.
  • Be especially concerned if a person is exhibiting any of these warning signs and has attempted suicide in the past. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, between 20% and 50% of people who commit suicide have had a previous attempt.

If you feel there is a risk, seek professional help immediately and do not leave him or her alone. And of course, pray and intercede. Call others to pray who can keep the concern confidential.

Dr. Adrian Warnock has written an excellent series on mental illness. In “What can I do to reduce the risk of suicide?” He states:

If you are concerned a person has ideas about harming themselves or others it is not the time to call a prayer meeting. First, get the patient assessed by a professional. At this point it really doesn’t matter whether that expert shares your faith or not.

Don’t attempt to handle all this informally within a church. Far better to take someone in for an assessment and be told that the doctor believes they are fine than to not act. By all means pray once the person has been taken to hospital, or get a group to pray while that is happening.

Even before such a situation happens, I would urge every pastor to become familiar with how to access urgent psychiatric help in their area. Why not reach out to local services, and ask for their advice how you can best serve church members who may have mental illness. There may even be a need for a local drop-in service which perhaps you could help them with.

6. Fail to pray for them faithfully.

Mental illness can be long-lasting, sometimes even life-long. So we tend to become weary or forgetful in praying for those who are affected.  Yet the needs remain, often urgent needs that weigh the sufferer and caregivers down and sap their hope and strength. Intercession is vital! It makes a difference. You may not see the ways God is answering your prayers, but He is. So be faithful to pray!

Question: Are you or your church body doing one or more of these things, perhaps without realizing it?

OTHER POSTS IN THIS SERIES:

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