The Church and the Mentally Ill

 John M. Crowe, M.Div., D.Min.

Member of NC NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness)

Member of the Pitt County Mental Health Association

Recipient of the 2002 President's Award from the Mental Health Association of NC 

Published in the Asbury Theological Seminary Alumni e-Link 2012

 At its best, the Church offers people meaning for living beyond the daily grind of life. Second, it teaches and reflects God’s unconditional love for all people. Third, it lifts people up with dignity and self-respect based upon God creating all of us in his image so that we can know God. Fourth, it offers Christian fellowship through its small groups that brings stability into a person’s life along with reducing the feeling of isolation, loneliness and being forgotten. Fifth, it challenges people with a faith worth living for and dying for that is bigger than ourselves. In very general terms, this is what the Christian Church has to offer all people and in particular those with a mental illness.

For a mentally ill person to know God’s unconditional love by experiencing it in a local church sets one free from the idea of having to earn God’s love. Christianity’s emphasis on the worth and dignity of each person offers someone with a mental illness a sense of self worth and being valued which is not based upon the world’s view of worth and dignity based upon what one does, how much one earns, the amount of influence and/or power one has over others, etc.

Howard C. Shade wrote “While the ministry of the Church is for all persons…., those who are mentally and emotionally disturbed or those who are in a crisis, have the first claim upon the ministry” (Maves, Paul B., ed. The Church And Mental Health, Charles Scribner’s Sons: New York, 1952). The previous quote was a radical statement in its day and one that merits saying often today.

Obviously, an unloving church, an unloving pastor, and Christian truth, which is not spoken in love, is unhealthy for a person with a mentally ill person as it is for others. Wise words, true words meant as a healing tool, used wrongly are just plain cruel. This also happens when the Bible is proclaimed in an out of balance manner that only adds to the anxiety, the depression, the sense of isolation, etc. of someone with a mental illness.

While death and sickness of all kinds entered the world because of Sin, it is not sound biblical reasoning to apply that truth to mean that mental illness is the result of some sin in a person’s life; a lack of faith; or being possessed by a demon. If anything, loving Christian clergy and churches recognize this as well as that having a mental illness often makes Christian discipleship more difficult.

Because preaching is truth through the personality of the preacher, the Church can help those with a mental illness by first having seminaries focus more on preparing the emotional maturity and spiritual health of that person’s personality and not focus quite as much on preparing them in ministry functions.

Spiritual and mentally harmful as well as ineffective preaching and teaching comes to a large degree from the unhealthy personality of the preacher, chaplain, etc. For example, the person's unresolved hostility, distorted guilt, personal insecurity, and/or emotional immaturity are land mines of both self-destruction and unhealthy impact upon those who hear him or her.  The same can be said about church members and in particular laity in positions of lay leadership. Clergy and laity who are healthy, becoming healthier, staying healthy as well as intentionally seeking to be healthier are the most helpful Christian people in ministry to and with people who are mentally ill and their families.

Therefore, spiritual and emotional health must be the focus of congregational life as a whole for the sake of the church having a healthy ministry. Using various programs, copying the examples of others, which worked, and the creative ideas for news ways of ministry are great, but ineffective and even harmful without authentic, healthy Christian people who reflect the love of Jesus Christ that caused the early followers of Christ to be called Christians as stated in the book of Acts. The health of a church and its clergy cannot be an end in itself, but the foundation of effective, wholesome ministry to all and in particular, to those who have a mental illness and their families. 

There is a wide chasm between the Church at its best and what some people experience in a local congregation. According to a recent study by Baylor University, families with someone who has a mental illness feel little support from churches. Baylor University produced the first empirical study of how a person’s relationship with the church is impacted when a family member is diagnosed with a mental illness. The study found that this takes place “because they lack awareness of the issues and understanding of the important ways that they can help,” said Diana Garland, Ph.D., dean of Baylor’s School of Social Work and co-author of the Baylor study.”

Surprisingly, “Families with mental illness ranked help from the church as a second priority; however, families without mental illness ranked it 42nd on their list of requests from churches.

Per Matthew Stanford, Ph.D., co-author of the study and professor of psychology and neuroscience at Baylor: “The difference in response is staggering, especially given the picture of distress painted by the data…. Families with mental illness reported twice as many problems and tended to ask for assistance with more immediate or crisis needs compared to other families.”

Such a great divide between churches and families with mental illness is likely due to several reasons. One, some pastors and churches still believe that a mental illness is caused by a sin, a demon or a lack of faith. Two, some believe and proclaim that if you pray hard enough or the right way then God will heal you and you will have no need for other treatments for ones mental illness. Third, many pastors and churches are in need of being educated about mental illness to free them from the before mentioned misconceptions, fear of people with a mental illness, and the prejudice toward persons with a mental illness. Fourth, it is not a subject very often mentioned in preaching and teaching, but when it is, it is too often done ignorantly instead of being well informed. Fifth, churches either do not host support groups for the mentally ill and their families and if they do, sometimes fail to inform their congregation about these groups.

Strangely enough, others studies show that clergy, not mental health professionals, are the first ones that people go to in times of psychological distress. However, the Baylor study found that about 30% of members who approached the church for help with their own mental illness or their family member’s diagnosed mental illness were told to dismiss the diagnosis and view it as only a spiritual problem. Some clergy are dangerously telling members to stop taking their medicines.

The study found that often this chasm results in destroying a family’s connection with a church and even leads some to leave their faith. It also found this divide to exist more in conservative churches than in more moderate or liberal churches. No matter where a congregation falls on the theological spectrum, if it is representative of the general population, then one in four households in a church is afraid to tell anyone about their own or a family member’s mental illness.

The Baylor Study is available online