By Israel Steinmetz
One area in which churches could be more informed and proactive is relating to individuals who have mental health concerns. Oftentimes, people who feel isolated and hopeless because of mental health issues don’t find the support and care they need from the church.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
Churches—particularly small churches—can serve as healing communities for people with mental health concerns. In order to do this, some basics need to be understood. Let’s look at five things small churches need to know about mental health in order to be a healing community:
- Mental health problems are real.
Despite the incredible shift in societal awareness and attitudes, there are still those who think mental illness isn’t real. They think people who are depressed are just sad, people who suffer from anxiety just worry too much, people with ADHD just need more discipline, or people with PTSD just need to “get over it”.
Sadly, these ideas persist in many churches as well.
But mental illness is very real and efforts to address it through motivational speeches, spiritual platitudes, punishment or conventional behavior modification fall far short of helping those who suffer.
“Mental illness” is a phrase used by modern psychologists and psychiatrists to describe a group of conditions and it’s true that the phrase is not found in the Bible. However, when we consider what “mental illness” means we see evidence of it in Scripture. Dr. Matthew Stanford, a Christian professor of psychology, neuroscience and biomedical studies at Baylor University, describes mental illness like this:
“…a disorder of the brain resulting in the disruption of a person’s thoughts, feelings, moods and ability to relate to others that is severe enough to require psychological or psychiatric intervention…a debilitating experience in which the person is simply unable to function normally over an extended period of time.” 1
While we can’t “diagnose” people in Scripture with specific disorders, we can observe mental health problems long before modern psychology. In Scripture we see evidence of:
- Substance-related disorders (Proverbs 23:29-35, 1 Timothy 3:3, Titus 1:7)
- Mood and anxiety disorders (1 Sam. 1:4-8, Psalm 32:3-4, 38:3-8, 44:15, 42, 34:18, 147:3, Proverbs 15:13, 17:22, Isaiah 61:1)
- Sexual and gender identity disorders (including cross-dressing, voyeurism, incest, bestiality)
- Schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders (1 Sam. 21:12-15, Daniel 4:28-33, Mark 5:1-9, John 10:19-20).
Mental health problems are not the invention of modern psychology. Rather, they are part of the human condition. Sin and death wreak havoc on our brains as well as the rest of our bodies.
- Mental health problems are prevalent.
Not only are mental health problems real, they are prevalent. The statistics are shocking:
- “One in four adults−approximately 61.5 million Americans−experiences mental illness in a given year. One in 17−about 13.6 million−live with a serious mental illness such as schizophrenia, major depression or bipolar disorder.
- Approximately 20 percent of youth ages 13 to 18 experience severe mental disorders in a given year. For ages 8 to 15, the estimate is 13 percent.
- Serious mental illness costs America $193.2 billion in lost earnings per year.
- Mood disorders such as depression are the third most common cause of hospitalization in the U.S. for both youth and adults ages 18 to 44.
- Adults living with serious mental illness die on average 25 years earlier than other Americans, largely due to treatable medical conditions.”
This is only a sampling of statistics gathered by the National Alliance on Mental Illness. 2 They represent real people in our churches, many of them suffering in silence. The church must acknowledge and address mental health concerns in our shared-life and ministries.
- Mental health problems are physical.
One of the major shortcomings in the way the church has treated mental health problems is to ignore their physical/biological components. Because mental health relates to thought, will and emotion, many Christians think of these issues as “soul problems” that can only be addressed through spiritual disciplines or divine intervention.
But modern neuroscience is increasingly demonstrating the connections between those things we associate with the “soul” and the activity of our brains. 3 We’re increasingly understanding the physical and biological causes and factors associated with illnesses of thought, will and emotion. In relating to those with mental health concerns we must acknowledge that they are dealing with medical problems that oftentimes have medical solutions. Our approach should be similar to dealing with other ailments of the body. This not only removes the stigma so often associated with mental illness, but also avails people of all the resources they need to find healing. To really appreciate what I’m getting at, consider how differently we tend to treat someone with depression vs. someone with diabetes. It shouldn’t be this way.
- Mental health problems are spiritual.
While we acknowledge the physicality of mental illness, we must keep in mind that everything—including mental illness—is a “spiritual issue”. That’s because “physical” and “spiritual” are so interconnected that what happens in one realm relates to and impacts the other. We are created as holistic, integral beings. And God’s promise of redemption relates to every part of us.
As we seek healing for ourselves and others, we should acknowledge that everything about us has spiritual implications, no matter how physically based it may be. People who suffer from mental illness need not only medication and mental health counseling, but prayer and community. They need discipleship. But that is not unique to people with mental health concerns. That is true of all of us.
- The small church can be a healing community.
One of the most significant roles of the church is to be a healing community. We are called to care for one another and be conduits for the grace of God to bring restoration and redemption. The church—particularly the small church—has the capacity to play this role in the lives of those suffering from mental health problems. 4
In order to do this, we need to understand that mental health problems are real, prevalent, physical and spiritual. And then we need to act on this knowledge. We “ACT” through:
- Acceptance & Advocacy
- Compassion & Care
- Talk & Teamwork
- Matthew S. Stanford, Grace for the Afflicted: A Clinical and Biblical Perspective on Mental Illness (Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2008) 43-44.
- For a helpful introduction to some of these issues check out this article: http://biologos.org/blog/body-and-soul-mind-and-brain-pressing-questions. For more, see Joel B. Green, Body, Soul, and Human Life: The Nature of Humanity in the Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008).
- For more on this check out Amy Simpson, Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission (Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2013) and Larry Crabb, Connecting: Healing for Ourselves and Our Relationships (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2005).