In celebration of the launch of my new book, Troubled Minds, I decided to post the article that started it all. This was published in Leadership Journal two years ago, and it was the first time I ever wrote about mental illness and my family’s experience. This project started a life-changing journey for me, and I hope it blesses you as you read it–as it blessed me as I wrote it.
Here’s Part 2 . . .
Mental Illness Is Mainstream
While we felt alone at the time my family’s crisis first developed, I now know that we were not. In fact, mental disorders are the number-one cause of disability in North America. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, “an estimated 26.2 percent of Americans ages 18 and older–about one in four adults–suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year.” That equates to more than 50 million people. Serious mental illness is less common, but still present among 6 percent of the population, or 1 in 17 adults. And antipsychotics are now the top-selling class of drugs in the U.S.
That means if your church is typical of the U.S. population, on any given Sunday 25 percent of the adults in your congregation are suffering from a mental illness and many are under the influence of antipsychotic drugs.
Leadership recently conducted a survey of 500 churches, using the National Alliance on Mental Illness definition of mental illnesses, “medical conditions that disrupt a person’s thinking, feeling, mood, ability to relate to others and daily functioning” and “often result in a diminished capacity for coping with the ordinary demands of life.” In this survey, 98.4 percent of respondents indicated they have experienced mental illnesses or disorders in their congregations.
People with mental illness might feel as if they are on the margins of society, but they’re actually in the mainstream! And with the drugs available today–and future improvements to come–mental illnesses can be treated and managed effectively for most people. And yet our Leadership survey also found that only 12.5 percent of respondents said that mental illness is discussed openly and in a healthy way in their church. Fifty percent said mental illness is mentioned in their church’s sermons only 1 to 3 times per year; 20 percent said it is never mentioned.
If mental illness and successful treatment are so common in our society, why is mental illness still stigmatized and avoided in the church, met with wide-eyed panic and awkward avoidance at best? Actually, it should be no surprise that people in the church aren’t sure how to respond to the mentally ill. We live in a society that is still deeply confused about mental illness. Have you ever paid attention to the way people with mental illness are portrayed in popular media? While some, especially more recent, works treat mental illness with honesty and sensitivity, most of popular media treats the mentally ill as either frightening or funny or both. For people with loved ones who suffer from ongoing serious mental illness, such portrayals are hard to ignore. Most people don’t seem to give it a second thought; try watching movies like Psycho, Strange Brew, Crazy People, the Shining, Misery, and Fatal Attraction through the eyes of someone who struggles with mental illness. Or turn on the TV this week. On any given evening, you should be able to find at least one show that either reinforces terror of the mentally ill, or makes light of their illness for a cheap laugh. Even amusement parks use mental illness to entertain and terrify, with rides like “Psycho Mouse,” “Psycho House,” “Psycho Drome,” “Dr. D. Mented’s Asylum for the Criminally Insane,” “The Edge of Madness: Still Crazy,” and “Psycho Path.” And in everyday conversation, we stigmatize the mentally ill by casually calling people “crazy” and “psycho.” People with mental illness are widely believed to be more violent than the general population, even though studies have shown that this is not true. No wonder people in the church–and outside the church–have no idea how to relate to a real person who acknowledges or displays a mental illness.
Along with this general misunderstanding of mental illness, other factors contribute to the stigmatization of mental illness in the church.
Social discomfort–Unlike society in general, the church is designed to be a community of like-minded people drawn together by a common Spirit and in love. Because it’s full of imperfect and sinful people, that community often feels fragile and finds itself sustained by polite behavior and exaggerated piety. In such an environment, people with mental illness can upset the balance and intimidate the rest of the community because their behavior can be unpredictable and socially unacceptable. And while people might show patience with a short-term difficulty, the prospect of ongoing interaction with someone suffering from a chronic mental illness may be more than most people feel they can endure.
Pastors themselves can be put off by the ongoing nature of a chronic illness: “Sometimes clergy distance themselves from people with mental illness because they realize the problem can be long term. To become involved with this person may mean a lengthy commitment. Perhaps this person will never be cured. Such a problem is contrary to contemporary Western ideas of being in control of one’s life and destiny. People in modern day America expect to find a rational solution to any problem. And yet, in this case, there may be no solution. It is tempting, if an answer is not apparent, to avoid the person for whom one has no answers.” (http://www.pathways2promise.org/family/pastorandperson.htm)
The convenience of referral–The increased professionalization of psychology and counseling–even biblical counseling–reinforces pastors’ feelings of inadequacy to help the mentally ill and their families. Pastors and others often refer those struggling with mental health to professionals inside or outside the church, and then rest assured that the person’s needs are met. But in some cases, people are abdicating their responsibility to care for those in their midst, even if ill people are under the care of professionals. People see mental illness as something they’re not qualified to deal with, so they ignore it. But when someone is struggling with a different type of physical illness, the church doesn’t ignore the people who are suffering, even though they may be under a doctor’s care. People with mental illness and their families still need pastoral care and the love of a Christian community.
Theological challenges–Seeing people suffer with mental illness brings up troubling theological questions many people would rather avoid:
Such questions can be especially challenging in the face of illnesses like schizophrenia, which are at least largely caused by biological conditions/tendencies present at birth. Such realities are not inconsistent with Christian theology–all creation is groaning under the weight of our sin–but can present a great test of faith. Pastors and other Christians who feel uncomfortable with raising questions they can’t easily answer are unlikely to bring them up. And yet people in every congregation must face these questions–with or without the church’s guidance. If our theology is too small to allow us to wrestle with them, we need to repent for our lack of faith.
Overspiritualization–For some Christians, every problem–and every solution–is spiritual. In this environment, mental illness is obvious evidence of a lack of faith. Medial and psychiatric interventions are suspect. When “just have faith and pray more” doesn’t work, people with mental illness are shamed and alienated even further.
To be continued . . .
© 2013 Amy Simpson.