May is mental health month and this is an opportunity to address the role of churches and the faith community at large in helping people to cope with mental illness.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) recognizes that faith and community leaders are often the first point of contact when people face mental health problems. Their website has a useful resource that provides guidance for faith and community leaders in terms of handling mental health crises. This is commendable, but unfortunately, there are many churches where the reality of mental illness is not acknowledged. Mental illnesses are either denied or attributed to spiritual problems, including demonic possession.
Mental illness is often stigmatized in church circles and even among health professionals
In this essay on the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) website, Ginger Robertson shares her heartbreaking experience with mental illness and the messaging she got from her church community. Even when she sought help from Christian-based health insurance companies for her mental health, they were not willing to cover antidepressants, which they deemed “unbiblical”. Within her own faith community, she was not permitted to volunteer with the youth group as she had disclosed her previous struggles with suicidal ideation. Rather than receiving the support she needed from her church, she was treated as if she was a threat. Despite this treatment from her church community, she relied on her own personal faith as she navigated her recovery. Fortunately, she eventually met fellow believers who acknowledged that they were on psychiatric medication, and it was helping them.
Sadly, people suffering from mental illness are often told they need to pray more and have more faith or that they need deliverance from evil spirits. Someone I know once stated very categorically that sin was the cause of depression. Some churches offer counseling by people who, though well intended, lack the professional qualifications or experience to deal with mental health problems. Other churches discourage their members from seeking professional help when they need it most.
A neurosurgeon once told a friend of mine who is a child psychiatrist that any child that needs to see a psychiatrist needs deliverance (from evil spirits). If a medical professional with all his training could make such a statement, is it any wonder that the general public doesn’t understand mental illness?
The Warrens’ story and what they are doing to help others
For those who believe that mental illness is due to a lack of faith or sin, I would encourage them to listen to this brief message in which Pastor Rick Warren, Founder of Saddleback Church makes a case for why the church should care about mental health. I have watched another video in which Rick and his wife, Kay shared the heart-wrenching story about their son’s struggle with serious mental illness, who, despite being a committed Christian, ultimately took his own life. After her son’s death, Kay founded the Hope for Mental Health initiative to support individuals with mental illness and their families. She also started BREATHE, a ministry that supports parents of children with serious mental illness and includes respite retreats and free Zoom calls with mental health professionals.
The American Psychiatric Association has published a mental health guide for faith leaders, in which they recognize that faith and spirituality play an important role in healing and people often turn to their faith community leaders in times of crisis. From a public health perspective, faith leaders can serve as “first responders”, helping to reduce stigma and facilitate access to care. But in order for this to happen, more faith leaders need to have a better understanding of mental illness.
Rick and Kay Warren are doing amazing work – reaching out to other families in need after their tragic loss and I hope that more faith leaders will follow their example.
Is it “biblical” to drive a car?
As for those who told Ginger Robertson that antidepressants aren’t biblical, here’s a gentle reminder that cars, airplanes, and microwave ovens aren’t biblical, either. It’s time to stop stigmatizing mental illness and this starts with raising awareness and supporting those in need of treatment.
Let’s make mental health a priority!
Happy National Mental Health Month!
If you need help, please contact the NAMI helpline at 1 800 950 NAMI (6264) or email firstname.lastname@example.org or go to their website https://nami.org/help. Help is available!