Fighting the Stigma of Mental Illness

John M. Crowe, M.Div., D.Min. 

Denominations and non-denominational church groups who jump straight from the New Testament to the present very often ignore the reality of physical brain disorders among Christians or demonize all mental illness. Such an outlook leads them to not only trash 2,000 years of church history, but also to believe the Christian is "not right with God" if they are mentally ill.

Who among us would boldly tell the Protestant Reformer in heaven, “Dr. Luther your recurring battle with depression was a sign that your heart was not right with God or you had a demon which should have been cast out"? Let him or her who has a higher, deeper and broader grasp as well as experience of the free, amazing grace of God in the face of the same kinds of challenges Luther faced be the first to tell brother Martin that his depression was due to some sin or demon in his life. 

How sad a story to read that a prominent Southern Baptist pastor, Rev. Freddy Gage, was immediately dismissed as a pastor when the congregation learned of his depression in the 1990’s. Ironically, such an abusive reaction would not have been true in Luther’s day. He would hear and read of Martin preaching and teaching without any sense of stigma on the subject of mental illness in Christians. Like Mr. Wesley, he neither condemned these folks as being guilt of some sin nor demonized their various physical brain disorders. In fact, he along with other Lutheran pastors would of received very detailed instruction on offering graceful pastoral care to those suffering souls. However, this is Rev. Gage’s full time ministry now called the “Wounded Ministers Ministry” for clergy and their spouses.

A "Ministerial Health and Wellness 2002" study, conducted by the Division for Ministry and Board of Pensions for the Evangelical Church in America, found that during a one-year period, 16 percent of male clergy and 24 percent of female clergy suffered from depression compared to 6 percent of U.S. men and 12 percent of U.S. women.

According to Ian Evison, a minister and director of research for the Alban Institute, there are an incredible number of clergy who are carrying the secret burden of depression. They exist in a cycle of emotional withdrawal from their pastoral ministry, their families, and their physical health. Boundaries become unclear and too often we hear horrific stories of self-destruction or some other personal disaster.

When my United Methodist colleague, Rev. Susan Gregg-Schroeder, wrote “In the Face of Depression” in the Circuit Rider in the January/February 2003 issue, she was over whelmed with the number of e-mails she received. Many expressed why they kept their depression a secret. Others told painful stories of how their faith in God and commitment to full time ministry was called into question when they let others know of their depression. Susan is no longer a pastor, but she has a full time ministry of equipping churches to be caring communities for the mentally ill and their families. Last year, we passed two resolutions at Annual Conference related to the church and mental illness. One of them called for each pastor to show Susan’s intro video, “Creating Caring Congregations”, on this theme some time during this conference 2004-2005 year. If you have not already shown it, now is the time to prepare to show it in April. It is available from our conference media library along with many other great videos on this theme. Also, if you want me to come and speak to a group in your church or even preach one Sunday on this subject, I will gladly do so upon your invitation.

May is Mental Health Month. April is a good time to make preparations for it. As we focus some aspect of our ministry toward mental health month in May, the following quote calls for some deep reflection.  "Our reaction to those who have dropped exhausted on the road of life is the ultimate test of our personal understanding of God's grace." Malcolm Smith.

A Few Facts about Mental Illness

Mental illnesses are physical brain disorders that profoundly disrupt a person’s ability to think, feel, and relate to others and their environment.

Mental illnesses are more common than cancer, diabetes, or heart disease.

One in every 5 families is affected in their lifetime by a severe mental illness such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and major depression.

The treatment success rate for schizophrenia is 60%, 65% for major depression, and 80% for bipolar disorder.

Comparatively, the success rate for treatment for treatments of heart diseases ranges from 41-52%.

The total price tag of mental illness in this country is $81 billion, including directs costs (hospitalization, medications) and indirect costs (lost wages, family care giving, losses due to suicide).

Roughly 80=90% of people with serious brain disorders are unemployed.