This week I had the opportunity to talk at Glenwood Church of Christ, my home church, in Tyler, Tx, about mental health needs in our community. In addition to another local therapist and local chaplain, we were asked questions and given the opportunity to discuss the issues we see in our work. We were also given the chance to share how we think the church could help those that suffer from mental illness. Specifically, what does the church do that hurts and how can the church help? What a wonderful, much needed conversation! I wanted to share some points from the discussion and continue the dialogue.
What does the church do that hurts?
1. Lack of Education- This point did not come from me, but I think its worth repeating because it is spot on! The church has good intentions when it comes to responding to mental health struggles and mental illness (eating disorders included). BUT often there is a lack of education for individual church members and/or the corporate church body so the church as whole does not recognize mental health issues because they don’t know what they are and they look like. Most of us have some type of stereotype idea that comes up when we think of mental illness in general or one specific disorder. That’s not a knock on the church or anyone, we just don’t know what we don’t know and media often becomes our textbook. So sometimes church members or leaders actually reinforce stigmas around mental health issues without ever meaning to do so. The way the church can help is to learn about mental health in general and mental illness. Most churches have access to individual therapists or organizations that would LOVE to provide this education. Mental health professionals love to share what they know- they want to educate on what are common mental health issues, how to recognize these issues, and how to respond appropriately. It’s important to have good boundaries when dealing with someone in a mental health crisis or in the midst of mental illness. We often struggle with those boundaries, so getting proper education is crucial in establishing healthy boundaries. If you are a church member or leader, I would encourage you to reach out to church members that are trained mental health professionals and/or find an organization in your community that would be willing to provide education. This doesn’t have to be a church wide education, but most organizations would love to meet with church staff, leaders, and other interested members to provide this education and begin this conversation. Most mental health professionals, regardless of their spiritual and religious beliefs, see the benefit in mental health and mental illness education for the church. As a mental health professional, I can confidently say that we get excited when there is interest in mental health! So reach out! A good starting place would be to contact your local Samaritan Counseling Center, affiliated with the Samaritan Institute. You can find your local Samaritan Center at http://www.samaritaninstitute.org/find-a-location/.
2. Silence- Often the lack of education on mental health issues leads to silence in one of two ways. One way is that the church doesn’t discuss mental health issues because the church isn’t aware of the mental health struggles and mental illness of its members and the community. So mental health struggles often aren’t asked about as prayer requests or aren’t discussed in sermons or classes because leaders genuinely don’t see the dire need- they don’t know what mental health issues are and how prevalent they are. Another way the lack of education leads to silence is that the church may begin to understand that there is a mental health issue at hand, but out of fear or uncertainty, the church or members remain silent because they don’t know how to respond. They are fearful of saying the wrong thing. If you know someone is in treatment or struggling, ask them. Not publicly, but individually. Don’t be afraid to share your genuine concern and ask them how they are doing. Silence from the church can often be interpreted as silence from God and that can be interpreted as abandonment by God (not my words, quote from Keith Wright). My encouragement is to not be afraid to share your own uncertainty or fear- simply saying, “I’m not sure how to ask or what to say, but I want you to know I care and I’d love to talk with you if you feel comfortable.” Give the person the space to talk about it, if they choose. If they choose to talk about what’s going, listen. Don’t listen to give great advice or try to fix their emotion or situation. We often listen to respond, we listen to give advice, we listen to share our own issues/pain/struggle. Sometimes we stay silent because we don’t know how to respond or what to say. A simple reflection of your own empathy for their hurt is all that’s needed: “my heart hurts for you right now. I wish I could make it better in some way.” We all want to be heard- really, truly heard- and that can only come when someone else is willing to simply listen to your heart. We don’t have to fix things for each other. We don’t have to have the answer to ease someone’s suffering. We just have to be willing to open ourselves up enough to sit in the pain and suffering with someone else to hear their heart. So be the person that is willing to listen to someone’s heart and then pray with them or for them. But, pray, friend. Also, don’t be afraid to encourage someone to seek appropriate therapy or treatment. It’s okay to say “hey, I’m not qualified to really help you with this, so let’s find someone who is” and ask your church leaders for local resources, call your local Samaritan Center, check out Psychology Today, or ask people you know who have struggled with the same hardships for referrals.
3. Not Allowing Pain– Although well meaning, the church often responds to mental health issues and mental illness by wanting to encourage and uplift. This is not an inherently negative response, but it doesn’t allow for the person to experience their pain and suffering. It also can send the message that they aren’t a “good enough” Christian (we’ll get into this later). Whether that person’s pain is due to a life-long or short-term mental illness or due to a life situation, they are struggling and in the depths of the valley. We want to pull people out of that valley, but it comes across as not allowing for the pain that we feel as humans. It comes across as belittling, demeaning, or condescending. Christ felt pain- and isn’t that an understatement- not only in the Garden of Gethsemane, but throughout His entire life. (Hello, he was literally born in a barn.) So if Christ felt deep pain and mental anguish, why can’t we? Why don’t we allow ourselves to experience the same emotions? The answer is that we can and we need to allow for others to feel pain also. The American Prosperity Gospel says that we have to be happy and if you aren’t happy and blessed with earthly blessings then you must have pissed God off or you’re doing something wrong. Jesus literally is and was perfect and His life is in DIRECT conflict with that idea. His life was wrought with pain and suffering and death…. and joy and love and grace and mercy and peace and life. His example says that we do not have to have one or the other, so it is okay to feel the depth of our pain and suffering and it is okay to allow others to do so. Pain and suffering does not take away the joy and love that can be found in life. It’s so difficult to sit with someone you care about and see them hurt. Our natural, loving response is to want to fix it. But that’s not our job. So yes, use Scripture to uplift and encourage, but don’t let that be your first response or only response.
Let your response be to listen, to cry with someone, to yell with someone, to be a safe place, to pray with someone, to pray for someone, to praise God, to seek God, to reflect God.
Because we can BE living examples of Scripture in the depths of mental health struggles and mental illness.
Varying reports say in 1 in 4 or 1 in 5 adults have some sort of mental health diagnosis, which says that there are people struggling sitting right next to us in the pew or seat. This number doesn’t even touch those struggling with emotional distress at the sub-clinical level, meaning the normal variances of emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual distress that arises with day to day life and major life transitions (i.e. job loss, moves, death of loved one, sickness, etc). What this means is that the church, individually and corporately, has to learn to how to identify and respond to mental health issues and mental illness. It’s non-negotiable and touches everyone. Now, this doesn’t mean every member or church leader has to know statistics and diagnostic criteria and treatment best practices- it just means the church needs to be willing to learn about mental health and mental illness, needs to be willing to have conversations with those who are hurting, and needs to be willing to appropriately help those who are struggling.
In effort not to have one, super-long post, I decided to write my eating disorder specific responses in this post.