Sensitivity to mental illness - Word&Way

Sensitivity to mental illness

One of the goals for the May 22, 2014, cover package, “Mental illness and the church,” was to discover what specific congregations might be doing to minister to members and others in the community suffering from one of the many forms of mental illness.

Bill Webb

Responses to a few queries suggest that there are probably few, if any, Sunday morning Bible study classes for sufferers of mental disorders. Nor is the landscape awash with materials for supportive small groups of young people or adults trying to cope.

The absence of such “ministries” hardly means that congregations do not care about people’s hurts and needs. Mental illness at multiple levels is a reality for one or more individuals in more and more families — and in more and more congregations. Mental disorders are pervasive. The Gospels suggest they were not unheard of in Jesus’ day.

Traditionally, the church has not acknowledged mental illness as an overtly intentional concern for multiple reasons. For sufferers, the condition is not one to bandy about. It is intensely personal, usually controlled by various degrees with medication and/or therapy, depending upon the specific disorder.

Sufferers are acutely aware that the reaction to awareness of their conditions may be unpleasant. True, some of those reactions might be empathetic, even compassionate. But others are likely to be insenstive or even hurtful. No one in this position wants to be identified stereotypically. Some of the stereotypes are outrageously unfair, even bizarre.

The result of disclosure may well be that a sufferer learns who really cares about him or her, and who doesn’t — who is truly a friend, and who isn’t.

If announcing a Bible study class for people with diagnosed mental disorders or some other ministry isn’t the answer, what can congregations do to accept those with such disorders?

Sensitize members

Sensitize them not only to the reality of mental illness but what the disorder means to those who experience it day in and day out.

Biblically, Jesus is one of the few examples of consistency in acceptance of others, even those whose condition meant that they were placed in isolation by society and by their own families because they were different in various ways.

The Christ-way is to acknowledge every person as a creation of God and afford that person the respect due them as a creation.

The isolated “odd” people of Jesus’ day were in places most people didn’t have to pass by, even if they had wanted to. Christ-followers today can do the same thing in the same room — the same sanctuary — by avoiding eye contact, or greeting and acknowledging another person. It happens all the time.

Sensitivity training in a congregation begins with the words “mental illness” not being taboo but even used from the pulpit. Churches would do well to offer resources such as training to help people understand more about mental illness, the struggle of people with disorders and effective treatment.

Like just about anything about which people lack awareness and understanding, a myriad of myths abound about mental illness and those suffering from it. A professional could lead an informative session as a mental health myth-buster.

Walk in another’s shoes

Church members often joke about the healthy at the expense of the mentally ill. “It looks like Sally forgot to take her meds this morning,” people may quip. The insensitive line often draws a chuckle and is usually not intended to be hurtful. To someone who overhears it, the line may hurt. Imagine you are the person who depends upon psychotherapeutic medications when you next hear that line.

It is not a matter of being politically correct but of being sensitive as a child of God to God’s other children. By comparison, people who are sensitive would not make jokes about a friend’s chemotherapy and its side effects or about heart surgery, also common health issues.

Choose not to walk away

Baptist congregations and others often conclude that people with particular problems or issues are too high maintenance. They effectively ignore such people, not unlike the priest and the Levite in the parable of the Good Samaritan.

Many people with mental illnesses don’t exactly know how to relate to others or whom to trust, but everyone needs friends and people who care for them. Such a friendship can be like any other and includes sharing of personal information by both parties and, as the friendship develops, a sharing of feeling, hurts and whatever. A mental health condition need not be the focal point of the relationship. After all, none of us is perfect. We all have our “disorders.”

When Jesus reached out to befriend people with mental disorder-like symptoms and actions, his disciples and others were shocked by his Christ-like actions.

Have you done anything to prompt such a reaction from anyone this week?

Bill Webb is editor of Word&Way.