Dear pastor, reverend, elder, deacon, bishop, small group leader, children’s director, youth minister, priest, congregant, choir conductor, etc…
The church is standing on the front lines of a mental health crisis and has no idea what it’s doing.
Each Sunday our pews are packed with people suffering from a variety of mental health issues, many of whom have come to the one place where they think they may be able to find hope and understanding. We’re failing them miserably.
Pastors, you’re spending 4-10 hours per week providing psychotherapeutic counseling to the people under your care, but on average, understand less than an undergraduate psychology student when it comes to even the most basic psychological issues. 75% of the time, when someone suffering from a severe mental illness (Schizophrenia, major depression, bipolar disorder) describes their symptoms, you will not refer them to a mental health professional.
In fact, you’re less likely to recognize signs of suicide lethality than someone enrolled in an introduction to psychology class. That’s concerning, especially when suicidal ideation is most prominent among those attending religious services.
My dear and precious church, we are the gatekeepers to mental health. A quarter of those seeking help for a mental illness will seek it from us, at a significantly higher rate than they will from a psychiatrist. They trust us that much, and what have we done to earn it?
Very, very little.
I don’t bring this to light as a victim, but as a complicit perpetrator of the same form of neglect. As someone who has tried to pray his own symptoms away and encouraged others to do the same. I shudder to think of the number of times that someone was carrying this unseen weight, and that in my own ignorance, I had added to the burden of their existence an extra helping of shame. Shame that they weren’t faithful enough to see the hope of the gospel, shame that they weren’t willing to put it all at the feet of Jesus, to lift their eyes to the heavens for the strength they needed.
We wouldn’t tell someone to pray their way out of needing to eat. It’s a physical need and physical needs require physical solutions. Therein lies the biggest problem with the church’s lack of knowledge regarding common psychological issues. When we’re met with the physical reality of a broken brain, often, all we see is a spiritual problem.
Are there spiritual issues that overlap with symptoms of mental illness? There are. Sometimes sadness flows from failing to see how much God loves, cares and provides for us because we don’t practice the means of grace (prayer and scripture reading) that would assure us of such truths. Other times, sadness flows from the feedback activation of presynaptic receptors. Which is the culprit? I can’t tell, and neither can you.
Moreover, we don’t have to. The gospel is not in competition with psychiatric therapy and medication, no more so than it is with bread, and Jesus only explicitly claimed to be the latter.
When it comes to the gospel and psychiatric means of healing, they’re not in opposition, they’re not even in the same weight class. One is the overarching narrative that encompasses all narratives, the hope for all humanity that promises the total redemption of any and all broken things. The other is a means by which some human suffering may be relieved, some heads may be lifted, some burdens made lighter. Psychiatric treatment is not opposed to the gospel, it’s a part of it.
There’s far too much at stake, and too great a responsibility resting on our shoulders, to neglect our need to grow in knowledge and understanding of psychiatric issues. God’s given us the mentally ill, delivered them to our doorstep, and what are we do to do with them?
It’s easy enough to claim that the church’s role in the world is simply to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ. That our sole responsibility lies is the exposition of scripture. Even if this were true, and it’s not, mental illness presents a unique problem in that, as mentioned above, it intersects with the spiritual in a near indiscernible way.
If you owned a restaurant and someone came in clutching their stomach and crying out in pain, you wouldn’t say, “Well, this is a restaurant. Therefore the stomach pain they’re experiencing is hunger. I’ll make them a sandwich.”
It sounds ludicrous, but it’s exactly what we do in ministry. Someone comes to us and says that they’re not sleeping at night, that they’re hearing voices, that they’re restless and making impulsive decisions. We take that information, filter it through the lens of our limited knowledge and our perceived purpose, and come to the conclusion that they’re lacking faith, under demonic attack, and lacking discipline.
In doing so, we heap burden where we might have brought guidance and comfort.
When we enter into the mess that is the human condition, bringing healing hands and tender hearts, we not only get to outwardly show the world the love of Jesus, but get to experience inwardly the inexplicable joy that comes from being his means of ministering to the world He so loves.
Jesus, Immanuel, the God who came down to be with us. His life and ministry serve as an example to those of us who would rather sit in the comfort of where we are and what we know than enter into the pain and trouble that sits before us. There is nothing comfortable about the tension that we live in as Christians ministering to the mentally ill. It requires us to live in two worlds, the spiritual and the physical, but that’s exactly where Jesus lives.
What I offer here is born of my limited experience navigating this world, but I hope you find it helpful.
In my experience talking about my own mental health struggles, the most discouraging responses have largely fallen into these categories:
1. Disbelief that I could have ever been anything less than stable.
2. An assumption about what I’m experiencing, and an uninformed recommendation for what I could do to get better.
3. The person’s personal opinions regarding all that’s wrong with psychiatry.
But one person responded with this:
“What’s that like?”
That person was a pastor, and that question was like salt and light to me. It gave me the opportunity to feel understood, and hopefully gave him an opportunity to understand better.
There is no shortage of information and resources when it comes to understanding mental health. A couple come to mind quickly:
Darkness is My Only Companion by Kathryn Greene-McCreight is an excellent book written by a member of clergy suffering from bipolar disorder, providing keen insight into the worlds of faith, scripture, and psychotherapy.
Psychology Today offers resources for those living with mental illness and those who just want to understand better. With daily articles written by mental health professionals, and a directory of mental health resources by area, it’s worth a bookmark.
And that directory of mental health resources may come in handy when you set out to see a psychiatrist yourself. Either as the 1 in 4 ministers who are experiencing living with a mental illness, or maybe even in an effort to build a relationship with someone that you can refer others to when the time comes.
I’ve been praying, and even begun lightly laying the groundwork, for a ministry that would equip church leaders and laypersons to minister to the mentally ill in their midst. I would appreciate your prayers for guidance and wisdom as I think about what exactly this would look like, and would also appreciate prayers that I would be led to the right people and opportunities to help make this a reality.