I just finished reading my friend Amy Simpson’s book, “Troubled Minds – Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission”. I was compelled to read this book because it is a topic I have ignored, mostly because it scares me. It’s unknown and awkward. However, in the last few years I have personally found myself face to face with the effects of mental illness; from seeing my grandfather deteriorate from the effects of dementia, to teaching teens in middle and high schools with an increasing rate of mental illness. It is not uncommon for just one class to include students with behavior disorders, social disfunctions, learning disabilities, depression and/or anxiety issues so immense some have to be escorted from class to class by an aid. I also observe mental illness in the homeless population I visit in the shelters in my city. When Amy mentions the increasing rate of mental illness in our nation, she isn’t kidding.
Many of us on any given day don’t give mental illness much thought, however Amy mentions some sobering stats in her book. Stats like one in four adults in the United States suffer from a diagnosable disorder in a given year. To make the assumption that mental illness isn’t common around us is indeed a myth. The church has yet to discover how to tackle this hard subject in its congregations. The recent death of Rick Warren’s son due to mental illness has been tragic, yet revealing that mental illness does not necessarily come from disfunction or happen to the “strange”.
Amy bravely reveals some of the problems that barrier the church from being able to embrace those with mental illness and their families. In her book, she bravely exposes her mom’s struggle with schizophrenia. In the book, she is vulnerable about her family’s journey of working through their struggles, and doing this while in the church. The problems she exposes involve: a lack of understanding and ignorance of the issues, theology about wholeness, and how we approach those with mental illness.
The problem of lack of understanding stems from lack of exposure to mental illness and assumption that we will never struggle with it. The problem with the North American church is that we think health and happiness equal the favor of God on our lives. This causes us to assume that suffering means we’ve done something wrong to cause it. No one chooses mental illness. Amy states, “We’re afraid of the dark. The darkness has cast itself over the light and suffering people are not safe”. They aren’t safe because of the often unintentionally ignorant solutions we offer. Because we believe that having a right relationship with God should solve everything, we offer opinions and suggestions such as; “You just need to pray more”, “You must have done something terribly wrong”, “You must not be walking with God”, going as far as accusing someone of demonic possession. We want to pray for them and see them “fixed”. When this doesn’t happen, the unknown scares us into coming up with our own remedies. Amy states it well; “Spiritualizing mental illness translates to blaming sick people for their illnesses. It also means that family members of people with mental illness also get the message that their sin and lack of faith may be the problem. It traps people into working harder and harder to achieve a level of righteousness that will justify their freedom from illness. This is not the gospel message”.
This can only lead those struggling with mental illness into isolation and fear. The fear of being rejected by the church keeps them in shameful silence. Our fascination with quick fixes and wanting people to get it together in our churches leaves families exhausted from carrying the load alone isolated and in despair. Dwight L. Carlson writes in his book, “Why Do Christians Shoot Their Wounded”, “Most churches have their measure of success; a certain number of converts, a specified increase in giving, a ‘star’ pastor, an array of flashy programs, or the numerical growth of the congregation. When we focus on these external things, however, all too often we neglect and inadvertently hurt the wounded among us”. Churches have become obsessed with church growth and attraction. This has resulted an obsession with image – something which welcoming the mentally ill and the broken would sabotage – so we cover up our imperfections to attract the attractive. Producing services worthy of grammy awards keep us too busy to have the time needed to give the amount of attention a family struggling with mental illness would need. Reaching out to the broken and marginalized become a great mission statement until issues aren’t quickly resolved or fixed. Timely recovery seems to be a prerequisite to being welcomed. As one lady mentions in the book, “The church we attended was full of people who seemed to me to have everything together as a requirement to attend, so I pretended that we did too”. Amy brilliantly addresses these issues. “When the church is silent to a person in crisis, it can sound remarkably like silence from God. It’s harder to feel accepted by Christ and covered by His grace when you’re hiding in the church”.
Amy addresses the problems she experienced growing up within the church and her mom’s mental illness, but she also offers hope and what can be done. I have left much of that content for you to read in her book. Coming from her first hand experience, after reading the book I not only felt more educated in what those who struggle with mental illness face even beyond the stigma of society and church, but in regards to the medical side of the illness and what an ordinary person like myself can do to reach out to a family facing such issues. What stood out to me that I can apply right away in my own life is that hurting people need to know they are not alone. They need to be accepted, without being fixed. They need loving people to come along side them to walk with them for the long run. They need to be heard through their grief that happens daily – sometimes hourly – missing the person they once knew.
The church has the opportunity to be what Christ dreamed of; a place where the sick find rest. There are no personal qualifications needed to love. God isn’t intimidated by this issue that seems insurmountable. His compassion for those who are desperate for help is ready to flood our hearts.
To find out more about “Troubled Minds” click here. It’s an amazing read.