Responding to Mental Illness in the Church

I am deeply saddened with thousands of others at the news that Rick Warren’s son, Matthew, recently took his own life. As a mental health professional committed to serving the church, I have sat with many who struggle with concepts of “joy” and “peace.” Unfortunately, the church has typically been a place where those with mental health struggles feel out of place and misunderstood. How can you be a Christian and at the same time want to put an end to your life?

I think it is important to first acknowledge the reality of mental health problems among Christians. In the same way that we see people in the church dying of cancer, riddled with disease, and struggling with physical disabilities we also see many in the church suffering from mental illness. Even this dichotomy of “physical” versus “mental” is false; the brain is a physical part of our bodies and it can become disabled like any other part of the body. Yet we maintain this idea that we can control our emotions, and that when we struggle with finding joy or peace we lack faith.

How do Christians respond to fellow believers with mental illness? If a Christian with Bipolar Disorder, for example, is in a manic phase he might be praised for his great faith and capacity to serve others without tiring. But upon entering a depressive phase, he is thrust into doubt and despair and others may wonder where he lost his faith in God. Too often, we use emotions as a means of judging a person’s spiritual life. Yet emotions are changing and easily disrupted; the truth of the Gospel does not depend on our emotional state.

With my clients struggling with despair and doubt I have suggested that feelings are not an accurate measure of their spiritual well-being. Finding meaning in obedience, knowledge, and truth can help provide an anchor for faith in the midst of turbulent emotions. Ultimately, the consistent and unfailing compassion of Christ is offered to all of us regardless of our own emotional state. It is this love, this peace, perhaps not felt within ourselves but known to be true that offers hope. When I do not feel peace, He is peace. When I do not feel joy, He is joy. When I do not feel love, He is love.

The church needs to be a place where those who struggle are welcome. The church therapy model creates a culture within the church that says, “We expect you to need help with your emotions.” Church therapy cannot take away mental illness, but with it we can properly assess and treat those suffering in our midst. Sadly, no amount of therapy can prevent every tragedy. We can only turn to God’s mercy and grace to help us in the midst of our deep suffering and pray, “Come quickly, Lord Jesus.”

For more on this topic, check out this article:

http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2013/04/07/my-take-how-churches-can-respond-to-mental-illness/