Monday, May 13, 2013

The Church & Mental Illness

There's been a lot of discussion lately about the topic of mental illness and what the church needs to do and can do.  Adrian Warnock has written extensively about it lately, and asked me to write a post with my thoughts.

Like many others, I don't think that the topic of mental illness has ever been addressed in a sermon.  Obviously, I don't remember every sermon I have ever heard, but I just don't think it has been a topic.  There are probably some good reasons for this, one being that there are some things pastors are not qualified to talk about.  If a person has little knowledge and no expertise in an area, it's better to let someone else do the educating.

I remember the church I attended for the longest period of time as an adult had a counseling center.  This was run by an actual psychologist (if I remember correctly), not a pastor who'd just had a counseling class or two in seminary.  While I never thought much about it while I was there, what this told me is that this particular church understood the need for mental health services and understood that there are people specifically trained to provide those services.

In the church I currently attend, there's a pastor who has a degree/background in marriage/family counseling, and while he will offer pastoral care, if it is anything serious, he will refer people to professionals.

Unfortunately, in many churches, this may not be the case.  Too often, mental health issues are seen as only spiritual problems that will go away if one just prays hard enough.  

I don't know why it is so difficult to see mental illness as an illness.  My friend Adrienne, who has a young son who has had numerous problems with mental illness, explained one time that it's so easy for us to understand and seek treatment for any other illness.  We understand when we are physically sick.  We take medications.  We have surgeries.  The physical aspect of our bodies is seen as something that can be broken and can be treated.  Why then, she asked, do we not think the same thing can happen to our brains?

That put it in perspective for me.  Our brains are as much of a part of our bodies as anything else, and if something can go wrong physically, something can also go wrong mentally.  

I would encourage anyone reading this to look at it like that.  It will go a long way in understanding the suffering a person may be experiencing, and if we encourage people to seek treatment for physical illnesses, we must encourage them to seek treatment for mental illnesses as well.  


Matt Appling said...

Great words, Kelly. I think the church neglects mental illness just because it's so easy to confuse "mental" with "spiritual." The mind is a body part, and like the rest of the body, it breaks from time to time. Our minds will die with our bodies. But since we can't see our minds, we assume that they are wrapped up in that invisible thing we call "spirit" which is immortal.

Kelly J Youngblood said...

Huh. I hadn't thought about that, but you may be on to something there. I just know that when I read about some of the experiences some people have had with church & mental illness I am glad to have been at churches like the ones I wrote about.

Adrienne Jones said...

This is me, showing up VERY late to the party, but I've been toodling around the internet, trying to get my head together to write about the mental health provider audit in NM (I won't explain it here because it's too complex, but it's AWFUL). Somehow, in one breath, I remembered this post and the one Mark Driscoll wrote right after Rick Warren's son died. You probably remember it (but I'll link below, just in case); it's the one where Mark explains Matthew's death to his own daughter by saying that the devil hates pastors' kids and he goes after them with special venom.

THAT is the problem, right there, though few people would put it in such terms. A mental illness seems like it changes a person's fundamental nature in a way a broken pancreas or a bone disease doesn't. I doubt if cancer had killed Matthew that Mark would have been so free with his "diagnosis" of "target of Satan" (Though it IS Mark Driscoll, and who knows what goes on in his head?) This is why I get messages constantly (two today!) telling me to get my son an exorcism. All my blogger friends in the MI community get those messages. Among my special needs parent friends who blog whose kids have disabilities or illnesses like Down's syndrome, diabetes, or cerebral palsy, I have never heard of anyone getting one of those messages, ever.

From where I am right now, I think just keeping the conversation going, and answering back when we hear this stuff in our faith communities, is the way to keep moving forward. Of course, I don't see anything like the kinds of problems others see because our congregation knocks itself out to be inclusive, but I think that's where we start. I'm so grateful that you are thinking and writing about this!