How Can Our Congregation Serve Individuals With Mental Illness?

According to the U. S. Surgeon General, one in five Americans experiences a mental disorder in any given year, and half of all Americans will experience a mental disorder at some time in their life. Nearly everyone has been affected in some way by mental illness, in themselves or in a family member. Yet even in faith communities, mental illnesses are seldom acknowledged openly. Mental illness has been called the “no casserole disease” because we often don’t know how to support those who struggle with its challenges.

Caring for those with mental illness begins with knowing something about it:

•    Mental illnesses are biologically based brain disorders.  They cannot be overcome through “will power” and are not related to a person’s character or intelligence.
•    Mental illness strikes individuals in the prime of their lives, often during adolescence and young adulthood.
•    The best treatments for serious mental illnesses today are highly effective; between 70-90% of sufferers have a significant reduction of symptoms and improved quality of life with a combination of medical and psychosocial treatments and support.

Mental illness can be endogenous; that is, it seems to appear mysteriously and spontaneously, in a previously healthy person, from no identifiable source. Or, it can be exogenous, caused by something or someone outside the person, perhaps trauma such as war, abandonment as a child, verbal, emotional or physical abuse. Some mental illness arises as a neurochemical response to a physiological event, such as stroke, heart attack, or major surgery. Delirium, dementia, depression or extreme anxiety can appear suddenly in someone who has recently had a medication change, in type or quantity; or when someone is treated for cancer with powerful and toxic drugs. When the medication is properly adjusted or changed, the mental illness disappears. 

Today, we are able to evaluate mental illness in a more dispassionate way than previously. In this "century of the brain," new technology enables researchers, psychiatrists and clinical psychologists, neurologists and neurosurgeons to actually watch the brain function as it responds to different stimuli. New therapies are being developed that combine appropriate medication, talking therapy, yoga, acupuncture, and behavior modification.  Hopefully, the new knowledge gathered will reduce the stigma of mental illness and bring it into the open as has been done with breast cancer. With enough familiarity, education, and honest conversation, we can, as a Christian community, begin to neutralize, if not the diagnosis, as least the negative connotation of the label mental illness.

Sometimes we fear becoming involved with a person who is ill; we worry that we do not have adequate resources of time, energy, and patience; that we will become trapped in a relationship with a  person whose needs we cannot meet.  But the major deterrent to compassion is not inadequate resources, but our seemingly innate proclivity for judgment.  We look at mental illness from a moral point of view, and that is hard to change. The bad news is that we often ignore, denigrate, run from, criticize and punish what we do not understand or think we can deal with. The good news is, as Christians, individually and as a community, we believe and are called to walk a different path, that of compassion (com=with & passion=suffering); to walk with someone, to accompany him in the suffering of his difficult journey. We didn't cause the illness and we can't cure it. The only resource we need to bring along is love.

What else can we do?

•    Learn more about how to be a friend to individuals who have a mental illness.
•    Support community agencies and organizations that serve those with mental illness.
•    Advocate for policies and funding to serve the mentally ill population.
•    Share stories about the role of faith in recovery from or living with mental health problems.

You can learn more about advocacy for people with mental illness from the web site of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.