Why the Church Needs to Move Beyond the Silence, Shame and Stigma Surrounding Mental Illness

Most of us know someone who is in counseling, on medication, or has even taken his or her own life as a result of a mental illness. There are many difficult issues for Christians to talk about, and mental health would certainly be near the top of that list. 

Yet, this is a conversation the Church needs to have. Suicide may be one of the most complex and demanding topics of all. Over the past few years, the discussion has felt forced, especially when the event is connected to high-profile suicides of prominent Christian leaders or their family members and close associates.

While the circumstances in these situations are varied, the question of mental health always comes up; and when we talk about mental illness and suicide, it immediately creates a unique challenge for believers. The question is “Why?” Why is it uniquely challenging for us to address issues often associated with mental illness?

God Heals

The answer is, at least partly, because we know God heals. He not only restores our spiritual wounds, but many also believe God physically heals… at times in miraculous ways.

So, as people of faith, we accept the miraculous, know of freedom in Christ, experience the forgiveness of sin, and acknowledge supernatural healing. However, we have all seen people, even believers, struggle with severe mental problems. They affect them emotionally, spiritually and relationally, and sometimes deliverance does not seem to come in supernatural ways. The person wants help. His or her family seeks answers.

Others wonder what is going on. So, it makes for awkward and limited conversations. As leaders, we often end up avoiding mental illness concerns altogether, or we fly by the seat of our spiritual pants in response when help is needed.

Some Personal History

I remember as a young pastor I did not know how to handle mental illness. We had a gentleman in our church who loved the Lord with all of his heart. He had a deep passion for God, but would then spiral down into these seasons of a diagnosed bipolar disorder.

The struggle was so intense he would end up disconnected emotionally and mentally, unable to function in day-to-day living. Even after crying out to the Lord and reading the Psalms, he would say, “God help me in the midst of this!” Neither of us knew how to respond to his condition.

As a 25-year-old, I had heard mental illness was just something people needed to pray about, which we did. Never had I seen a man pray harder to be set free from such tormenting cycles than this man, but he was not delivered.

In the end, he took his own life. His family was left confused, in pain, and deeply grieving. As a pastor, though certainly not dealing with the same level of grief or pain they were, I came to grips with the reality that I was unprepared to effectively address mental health issues within my congregation.

A New Awareness

Thankfully, many Christians and clergy members are now taking mental illness much more seriously. Numerous ministries and church leaders are working to equip pastors and congregations to handle emotional and psychological distress. One way we can be prepared is to better understand these realities that surely exist among our churches across the country.

LifeWay Research, where I served as Executive Director, conducted a survey in partnership with Focus on the Family and an anonymous donor to gauge the perceptions of pastors, churches and those suffering from mental illness on a wide range of related topics. The following is a brief synopsis of what we uncovered:

1 – Pastors’ Views on Mental Illness and the Church

When we surveyed Protestant pastors, the first thing we discovered is that they do, in fact, have experience with mental illnesses. Approximately three out of four pastors said they knew at least one family member, friend or congregant who had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

Close to the same number (74%) said they knew someone diagnosed with clinical depression. More than half (57%) said they knew at least three people who fell into that category. In terms of counseling, almost six in 10 (59%) said they had counseled at least one person who was eventually diagnosed with an acute mental illness.

Perhaps even more important, 23% of pastors indicated they had battled a mental illness of some kind on a personal level, including 12% who said it was formally diagnosed. These findings are confirmed by the National Alliance on Mental Illness and similar numbers within the general population.

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SOURCE: Christianity Today, Ed Stetzer