1 Thing I Want Everyone to Know about Mental Illness

When I was 14, mental illness redefined my family and reshaped our understanding of the world. My mother had showed symptoms of schizophrenia since young adulthood, but no one had understood them as indications of illness. For about a year, they had been growing more disruptive. Then one day when no one came to pick me up after track practice, her illness became undeniable. She had been overwhelmed by the blurring distinction between reality and delusion, and she could no longer tell the difference.

She would learn to tell the difference again, thanks to hospitalization and to medication, which brought her home but left her feeling like a zombie. And her return was temporary–for the next 25 years, she would be in and out of hospitals, homeless shelters, jail, and prison. And the illness that put her there would claim more than one victim–it stole my father’s confidence, my family’s happiness, our sense of footing. In exchange it left grief and shame.

And when we went to church, we found no respite from the shame we needn’t have felt but which pressed down on us like a monster’s thumb. There were so many things we needed to hear and didn’t, not because our church meant to hurt us or because its people were cruel. Like so many, they didn’t know what to say or do, so they stayed silent. They didn’t want to embarrass us, so they mostly ignored our trouble.

Earlier this year, I released a book, Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission. I wrote it to help Christians better understand families like mine–who are far more common than we felt when I was young. I wrote it to help the church fulfill its mission in relationship to people affected by mental illness. And it starts with simply talking about mental illness with a more informed perspective and in light of Christian truth.

If you are affected by mental illness–your own or that of someone you love–you know that when the church is silent on the subject, that silence can cause a variety of injuries. Perhaps among the cruelest is the implication that people with mental illness have no purpose in the church or God’s kingdom.

So here’s one thing I want everyone to know: God always has a purpose for everyone. Our world tends to marginalize people who suffer from mental illness, disabilities, and other conditions. Mental illness may alter the course of a person’s life, and managing it may come with limitations, but it doesn’t mean that person’s life is no good anymore. Psalm 139 is a beautiful reminder of our value to God, and his attention to the details of our lives. Verse 16 celebrates, ‘You saw me before I was born. Every day of my life was recorded in your book. Every moment was laid out before a single day had passed.” God is not surprised by your suffering, and he wants to use you!

God also wants to redeem your suffering. Sometimes this means he’ll use that suffering to make you more like the person he wants you to be. Sometimes it means your suffering will become a way for you to show his love and grace to someone else. Maybe both. You may never realize how God uses what you have been through, but he will–especially as you welcome his work in you. Second Corinthians 4:7-11 tells us our suffering bodies (and your brain is a part of your body) are valuable to God’s work: “Through suffering, our bodies continue to share in the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be seen in our bodies.” Our bodies are fragile and unadorned, but for Christians they carry the presence of God’s Spirit in this world, “like fragile clay jars containing this great treasure.” Mental illness doesn’t change the fact that we are called to represent him in these bodies. And good news for those of us who want to see God’s power work through us: As Christ told the apostle Paul, “My power works best in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).

So take heart and find hope in knowing mental illness does not make you marginal to God’s plans. He is in the business of redemption, and regardless of how people may see you, he sees you for who are and loves you more than you can imagine.

21 Comments
  1. Vicki says:

    Thank you for being a public voice for us, the adult children of the mentally ill.
    One of the ways that Christians can “include” us in the church is by listening to our stories. So many ACMIs have never been able to talk about their childhood to anyone. We know that it makes people uncomfortable, so we become like sexual abuse survivors-feeling undeserved shame and grief. Sharing our stories lifts our hearts and frees us from Satan’s lies about mental illness.
    I am realizing how many different kinds of survivors have been unable to share their stories,either, so I try to listen to them. Whether they be an abuse survivor or a member of another marginalized group, we ACMIs can show interest and extend empathy.

  2. Ray says:

    Amy I so very much appreciate your writing on the area of mental illness and faith. I too am dealing with that issue in my blogs right now and have recently included a quote from one of your previous blogs in it 🙂

    As someone who would be described before as “a tough trailblazer” and having served God in missions for 25 years I was diagnosed 2 years ago with severe burnout and depression and was soundly “knocked off my pony”. I was probably depressed (according to the doc) for at least a year before that. Long story not for me to tell here now.

    However I wanted to thank you for this latest blog that speaks into the way the church in general can relate, due to misinformation or even doctrine. I believe your book (which I will order from Amazon if I can) will be very helpful in my own journey and help towards others. I do believe in my case, God has used the condition to “soften” me and allow me to show more empathy towards others. For much of my life I have been driven and have had to just push through some very tough situations, and as a result expected high standards of myself and others I led.

    I am sure I have hurt many others by my insensitivity in the past and am working on a second book which I trust will help to bring information and sensitivity to those suffering with mental illness and those looking in.

    My Mom also suffered much from depression and was hospitilised a number of times before she passed away of a heart attack at just 60 years old. (Thankfully she knew Christ). The truth is I never knew what to say to her except “its going to be okay Mom”.

    My wife and I have a son of 22 who is now happily married and living with a wonderful young lady in Michigan (I live in South Africa). However his schooling in South Africa was very difficult and he was diagnosed with acute ADHD and told he wouldn’t finish High school here. He promptly asked if he could go to the US at 16, completed his High schooling and even went onto Art college as he is a gifted artist. (and met the love of His life in the process).

    We now have a 10 year old and 12 year old adopted daughter, the latter who is just not making it at school and we need (due to major learning difficulties) to pull her out of “normal schooling” here and find an alternative as well. Your reference to Psalm 139 was beautiful as I too believe each one of us has a gift God has planted in us to be a blessing to others and glorifying to him.

    Thank you again for your writing.
    Blessings,
    Ray

  3. Tony Roberts says:

    Thank you, Ms. Simpson for sharing your passionate and compassionate words.

  4. Amy, you speak to this issue with such grace and wisdom and compassion. Thank you for the beautiful reminder that God has a purpose for everyone and that God has a good plan for redemption.

  5. kim says:

    Dear Amy

    Thank you so much for the uplifting sharing. It means the world to me. As I myself am affected with voices. And may I ask for your permission to share it in Thai to Thai churches and Christians?

  6. Legina says:

    I stand in total agreement. I will share this article and be happy to support it. Whether it is for ourself, or for someone we know, God has designed us all with purpose. And I can testify to that!

  7. Colleen says:

    Thank you for writing what you have experienced and learned from your life. It means so much to read and relate to it because of not only living with mental illness, personally and within my family, but as it relates to my faith. In our world we see this missing link and it’s challenging to be ‘authentic’ and not too messy. There’s a not-too-fine line that keeps people from sharing their reality with others.

  8. Colleen says:

    Mental illness does effect who we are as a Christian.

    • Colleen Ward says:

      Mental illness does effect who we are as a Christian. What I deal with weekly or daily is very different from what others do. Different. Sometimes better or worse. It is a burden with varying weights, daily. I’m doing the best I know how this side of heaven. My hope is in Christ for the future where I will be with Him one day. I am grateful for his love for me and my family in the midst of mental illness.

  9. Jodi says:

    Amy- what a beautiful post.
    Thank you for sharing such a vulnerable topic… I can relate to you as my Mom also suffered from mental illness. After reading your words, I am appreciative to have a new perspective on the subject. Such a blessing today.

  10. Tony Roberts says:

    Amy,

    You have once again offered a faithful witness to your family’s struggle and shared the Gospel hope with those of us who have troubled minds. Well done.

  11. Sharon peters says:

    I have followed the work of author Anne schaeffer Wilson for my problems w/ addiction. I’ve suffered from depression since childhood and have selfmedicated. Dual diagnosis. Anne schaeffer Wilson posits that 96% of western culture is addicted. I have encountere Higher power in 12 steps. I feel prepared to Reachace the work of recovery: my own, & helping others. I feel I have learned some things that are practical & compassionate. At the same time as many in this country are having crisis after crisis I feel sufficiently healed and ready to reach out.

  12. Nienke says:

    Hi,
    Thanks for this book and blog. I just discovered it and ordered the book.
    Did you ever write about suicide, by christians with mental illness? My husband recently passed away that way, he was diagnosed with manic depression disorder but never recognized it himself. Many people in church, at least new friends who didn’t know him very well, or who were naieve, thought he was not ill but very gifted and had a lot of revelation (like you told about your mom). And if they saw he was ill they told him he needed to be prayed for and then he would be allright. It was -ofcourse- not that simple.
    His friends, and me as well for a long time, thought it was spiritual, while rather it was mental.
    Did you ever write or think about this subject? I would love to read about this topic. It helps me to order my own thoughts and mourn.
    It’s a bit hard for me to read about our hope in Christ (although you are right, and He is my Hope, and He was the Hope of my husband (who is now in heaven, I am sure)), since this story ended with death (well, death never has the last word, but for now).
    I would love to hear from you.

    • Amy says:

      I’m sorry to hear about the loss of your husband. What a painful grief you must be going through. I have not experienced the loss of a close loved one to suicide, but I imagine it must be among the most emotionally difficult experiences anyone can go through.

      I mention suicide and its connection to mental illness in some of my writing, but I haven’t written anything that specifically addresses this difficulty and explores the questions that you must be left with. There are other writers who have walked down that path and written about it, and I recommend you read what they have to say as well. Al Hsu, who lost his father to suicide, wrote a book on the subject, ‘Grieving a Suicide.’ Here’s a link: http://www.ivpress.com/cgi-ivpress/book.pl/code=2318.

      Christine Scheller, another excellent writer, lost her son to suicide after a difficult battle with mental illness. She has written about her experience in articles and on her blog. You can find her blog here: http://christineascheller.com/. You might especially benefit from this article: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2009/april/27.38.html.

      I hope this is helpful. Please know that God has not abandoned you and will not ever walk away from you.

      Amy

  13. Annette Skarin (Annie Freewriter) says:

    I have suffered all my life because of the way the church treated me. There were some Christians fortunately who saw me with grace and love.

    I do not refer to what I suffer with as a mental illness. I prefer to say, the way I’m wired.

    The verse in the Bible that has helped my heart know how much God loved me, was in the II Cor. letter from Paul where he wrote about his own handicap. in the 12th chapter in verses 7-10. I don’t know exactly what Paul’s handicap was, but I found comfort in knowing that he suffered like I did by being given a messenger to torment him to keep him trusting in the grace of Christ being sufficient. Down in my heart I believe he could have had a mental handicap, or messenger (from Satan) to torment him, which only made him depend more on the sufficiency of God’s grace.
    I am writing a memoir about my own struggles with the “handicap” which I now see as a gift of God. I have a compassion for those suffering. Just looking someone directly in the eyes and treating them like anyone else will not only bless them, but you.

  14. Anne Marie Winz says:

    I have at least a half a dozen friends who suffer with mental illness. Most function at a high enough level to keep a job and to know they struggle. They tell me the greatest gift I can give them is to listen to them. I’m not sure they’re right. They get on a topic, say, about how broken one of the relationships in their life is right now, and it’s as if they get stuck in a never-ending loop. Sometimes they drive me crazy. It doesn’t help me to listen, and it doesn’t seem to help them to keep repeating themselves.

    That’s hard enough, but it gets worse. If I am with one or two of them, and we are with a group of people, they get stuck in a loop and can’t get out of it. And I’m leading the discussion (think Bible study, Sunday School class, or meeting at work). Everyone in the group becomes uncomfortable. I do my best to redirect the conversation, but, in my heart, I’m sure that’s not the most helpful response. I don’t want to call them out for being socially inappropriate, and I don’t want to let them continue to monopolize the conversation, so I redirect.

    When I spoke privately with one of them about this, she stopped talking altogether in our group. We missed her perspective. Eventually, she became more comfortable, and now she speaks up freely, and, when she gets stuck in her loops, I redirect. Another member of the group has said she wonders if my friend is bi-polar. When she takes her meds, she gets drowsy and doesn’t participate because she can’t stay awake, so, she doesn’t take her medicine and presents the behavior I’ve described above? If this is true, is there no middle ground?

    I care. I want to help. I don’t understand. I don’t know what to do. Your thoughts?

    • Amy says:

      Anne Marie, this sounds like a challenging situation. I’m not a mental health expert, but I do have experience in interacting with people (especially my mom) who have serious mental illness. It can be very difficult, and exhausting, to be around someone who has an untreated mental illness. Ultimately, if someone in your small group (or group friends) has an illness like bipolar disorder and does not take medication consistently, the group will be profoundly affected. It’s OK to admit that this is a real difficulty. You are doing a great job of trying to offer the help you can and being a friend. It’s OK to set boundaries too. Truly being a friend to someone means we are honest about what does and does not work in that friendship. And being a good listener doesn’t necessarily mean listening to the same thing over and over without inserting your own questions and perspective into the conversation. I think it’s wonderful that you spoke privately to her–and while she initially became too quiet, it sounds as if you have found a good rhythm of guiding her toward productive interactions within the group. Unfortunately, if she has a mental health issue, your friendship is not going to “cure” or fix the problem. And it’s appropriate for you, as a loving friend, to suggest that she seek treatment or advice from a mental health professional (without trying to offer a diagnosis yourself). You’re doing a good job. It’s not easy, and it’s not simple. But your listening develops trust, and that trust may end up helping to support her in seeking and sticking with the treatment she needs.

    • Annette Skarin (Annie Freewriter) says:

      I used to get stuck in loops also. The thing that got me out of it were the kind people who helped me break the loop with grace. It takes a special person to recognize when I’m stuck and know how to break my cycle. Redirecting never helped me. Grace always has. Grace treats me with the same one-way love it does to anyone, whether in a wheelchair or blind (you know, the more obvious “problems.”)
      I have found that the only group that has worked for me are large writing groups or Bible studies (no wrong answers) with a good leader who knows how to be diplomatic about sharing time. I also take medication, but have found that I had to be the one to tell my doctor what works and what doesn’t (self-monitor) until I found what works for me (most times less is better.) I thank God for modern medicine and for sending me listening friends.
      Don’t try to fix the person or try to explain why they’re suffering. Don’t become Job’s friends. If you’re not good with people who suffer with social or mental issues, introduce them to someone who is. I have one or two good friends who accept me broken pieces and all and that’s all I need.

© 2014 Amy Simpson.