In the May 22 issue, I wrote a cover story and editorial on churches and mental illness. I had hoped in my research to discover if and what efforts some churches are making to help people dealing with mental illness themselves or within their families. In the process, I rediscovered some things I already knew. Here are more follow-up thoughts.
Churches may afford a context for support groups, particularly for families of children or adults suffering from mental disorders. They can sensitize members to this extremely pervasive matter. However, it would not be appropriate to set up a new Bible study class targeting and recruiting the mentally ill. Or to start a congregation called something like The Church on the Way for the Mentally Ill and announce, "Everybody welcome!"
It is encouraging to see churches helping members become better educated about mental disorders and working to defuse the stigma of mental illness. Dealing with this issue requires high levels of sensitivity and respect. In today's world, mental illness is not a rarity -- if it ever was.
Through the years, probably since Adam and Eve, our fear of the topic -- even as church people -- has prompted us to steer clear of the mentally ill. We've learned to ignore them, not unlike the priest and the Levite when each spotted a severely beaten traveler in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37).
We ought not to expect people dealing with mental illness themselves or within their families to boldly divulge it to a congregation. This is, after all, a highly personal matter.
The simple truth is that an individual suffering from almost any illness likely will not be the only one in a church. Every member has some condition or life issue. Like Christ, believers begin with accepting people where they are, even before we know very much at all about them. In attitude and action -- and not in words alone -- church members can still affirm, "You are welcome, accepted and valued here." It comes not by corporate (or congregational) pronouncement but through a dedicated cadre of members living out a caring faith.
More than a dozen years ago, it became clear to me that I was likely suffering from depression. On a scheduled doctor's visit, I decided to broach the subject. My physician always queried me (and still does) about my existing medical conditions and on every visit asked, "Is there anything else that concerns you?"
On that particular occasion, in the pause that followed his question, I simply told him I was concerned that I might be suffering from depression. The words did not come out as easily or as eloquently as when I rehearsed them. I told him that I had not been sleeping well for some time; I found it harder to concentrate; and I had become more anxious about family and work responsibilities and relationships. My doc asked his own questions, confirmed a depression diagnosis and prescribed what he described as a low-level antidepressant. I discovered that the medication seemed to heighten my anxiety, so he prescribed something different. The second one (or maybe it was the third) was effective, and I have used it since, although a lesser dose has been equally effective in recent years.
Professionals and others differ on whether depression should be called a mental illness. Some are adamant that it should not. Rather, they refer to it as a condition or disorder. Either way is alright with me. I see my physician when I am sick and for high blood pressure and high cholesterol, and I use medications to cure illnesses and manage these conditions. I do the same for depression.
My condition does not cause me shame. Perhaps as a defense mechanism after being diagnosed, I immediately told a few people about my diagnosis and treatment. I think I did not want someone to "discover' my disorder and feel I was hiding it. But it has not been a secret. Until now, I have disclosed it usually one-on-one through the years.
To fear negative reactions from others when one deals with depression or more serious mental disorders is understandable. But ultimately such illnesses fall into the same category as cancer, heart disease, appendicitis and thousands of other maladies in that they require professional attention and -- with few exceptions -- can be cured or at least managed with skilled care.
The mistake is to ignore or hide a medical condition we know exists. An unacknowledged mental illness continues to harm the patient but it may also subject family members and friends to ongoing stress and anxiety if needed treatment is declined or neglected.
The onus is on Christ-followers to treat people respectfully and lovingly in general, to be understanding and empathetic when a person feels comfortable enough to disclose dealing with (or struggling with) any personal issue, to tenaciously maintain confidentialities in such a relationship and to do everything possible to make the congregation a safe, welcoming place for every member and visitor.
By all means, if you suspect you might have a not-yet-diagnosed condition that needs care, have it checked out -- for your own sake and for your loved ones. To every person: Take advantage of opportunities to better understand mental illness and how it affects sufferers. If given the opportunity, be an accepting and supportive friend to such individuals. It will bless you and the other person.
Bill Webb is editor of Word&Way.