The Church's Ministry to Families of 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 

Used with permission from my article in Sharing the Practice: The International Quarterly Journal of the Academy of Parish Clergy. Winter 2004. pg 8.  

Many people with mental health problems first turn to clergy. It is easy to focus ministry upon the family member who is ill and ignore the ministry needs of their family. What is the church’s ministry to families of the mentally ill?

Extreme exhaustion is a frequent trait of family members. It is seen in their no longer being able to keep their house in order. “Why not?” They were doing all they could to just hold the family together.

Jesus calls us to help the family of a mentally ill person with Christ like attitudes. Don’t go to observe, criticize, and spread gossip. Sometimes people who go to ‘help’ make critical statements and thoughtlessly throw away things. Put yourself in the family member’s shoes before throwing away things. If you are not sure, leave it and just straighten things up.

Look for signs of depression in family members. They often deceive themselves about being in better contact with the problems of their loved one than is realistic. Do they experience difficulty in focused thinking? Do they behave as individuals? Do they say they have no right to take care of their own needs? Do they recite the same handful of horrifying stories?

Do they entertain ideas like, “I should change careers for my family member’s health?” Such unrealistic thinking comes from the F.O.G. (Fear-Obligation-Guilt) created by their enmeshment with the loved one’s mental problems.

Support groups for family members are wonderful, and education experiences are informative. However, they pale in the face of a good therapist.

Therapy deals with the roots of their depression. They will recognize their enmeshment, and see the pitfalls of their victim mentality. They will live more fully in the now by taking responsibility for their own life and tending to their own needs. Very few pastors have the time or the training to do such in depth counseling. Neither should pastors be expected to.

Not all families impacted by mental illness hold together. Some mentally ill persons abandon their family or commit suicide. Divorce occurs when the spouse finds themselves drowning is their spouse’s mental illness. Such sad outcomes seem to occur regardless of the support network, well-developed boundaries, or their relationship to the church. Instead of simplistic counsel or legalistic judgments, these families need extreme compassion.

The families who fall apart carry mammoth loads of emotions like failure, shame, self-inflicted guilt, ‘the what ifs, ’ and deep hurt. Clergy and church members only add to the intensity of this load when they abandon and act in other unChristian ways toward these families and their mentally ill loved one.

Here are two more goals for clergy and churches in response to this need.

1. Recognize the interrelationship of medical, spiritual, emotional, and social needs of those who suffer from mental illness and those who are close to them.

2. Have special Sunday’s to lift up the church’s ministry to the mentally ill and their families. Include the mentally ill and their families in pastoral prayers. Preach sermons and conduct special classes to instruct people in a Christian response to this painful human need.