Mental illness, defined as any disorder of the mind that affects life function, causes great distress to not only the person dealing with it, but also those around him or her. Disorders such as major depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and psychotic problems are much more common than one might think. My guess is that right now you have at least one or two people in your life, family or friends, who are suffering from mental illness.
Research has shown that one of the major factors in how a person copes with mental illness is the relational support systems surrounding him. When they have warm, structured and understanding people and groups in their lives, the quality of life improves and the effects of the disorder are lessened. When they are isolated, marginalized, misunderstood or judged, the effects can be devastating. This is all consistent with what so many passages teach in the Bible:
“Then they also answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick in prison, and did not minister to you?” (Matt. 25:44)
“Bear one another’s burdens and thus fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2)
“Encourage the disheartened, help the weak, be patient with everyone” (I Thess. 5:14)
The church community is one of God’s main anchors to help people in need, including those with mental illness. The nutrients of love, grace, truth, wisdom and structure are all there in the Body of Christ. My book “How People Grow” sets out a path that shows that the paths of help for all mental and emotional illness is already in the Bible. Unfortunately, church members often feel unqualified or even overwhelmed with knowing what to do to help. Here are a few tips to get things going:
Get informed and talk to the leadership. Have some conversations with mental health professionals in your community and read up on the subject. There is a great deal of helpful information available. Then ask one of your church leaders for a conversation on the subject. Investigate with him what your church may already be doing, that you might not be aware of.
Don’t advise, volunteer. Churches are very busy places. The last thing the leaders need is someone having lunch with them and saying, “You guys need to pay more attention to mental illness.” That’s pretty off-putting. Instead, volunteer to help: “I’ve felt challenged to make a difference in mental illness. Do you have any ideas or meetings, or would you like me to figure something out and propose it to you?” I can’t tell you how much church leaders appreciate the offer!!
Use what already exists. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel, there are lots of programs going on in most communities. Check with psychiatrists, psychologists and therapists whom your church refers to. They will know about local organizations and programs that may have weekly groups with curricula and agendas that you can easily plug into your church.
Normalize mental illness. I’m a big believer in “if you see it, say it.” You be the one who has the conversations. Some people will feel awkward at first, but growth is disruptive by nature. In a year, lots of people will be talking about it, preachers will be preaching on it, and groups will be going. Be the disruptive (or redemptive) agent.
We can do a great deal to help with mental illness. In doing so, we are moving one step more in furthering Christ’s Kingdom. God bless you.