Mental Health and The Church – Part 3 of 3

The local church is one of my loves on this earth because I think it reflects God’s brilliant creativity and love for his people all mixed together in a moving and active place called the church. It’s such a gift to be a part of a healthy church.

This week I did quite a bit of writing about how the church has struggled to understand people within her walls that struggle with mental illness. I’m included in those of us who have misunderstood and have probably inadvertently hurt people along the way.

We talked about ways the church can help in previous posts. I’ve referred you to some good reads and now I want to delicately talk about something I see from a unique angle as being a pastor’s wife when it comes to mental health issues and the church.

I’m reading where often times church members with mental health issues feel betrayed by the church or have left the church because they feel they or their child was treated unfairly. They express feelings of loneliness and disconnectedness. They feel nobody understands how they feel or what they are going through. So they leave because “the church hurt me” or “the church just wasn’t there for me”.

Because of the stigma associated with mental health and the embarrassment that seems to be attached to it people don’t want to talk about their mental health issues. If they do share with one of their pastors almost always they ask you to keep it confidential. This places the gift of encouraging, praying with and visiting someone on one single person and that’s unattainable and not healthy. And there are many other people in the church who, if they also knew, would love to offer encouragement and support.

I have a suspicion that if one person shared his/her story of depression, of suicidal thoughts, of fear and anxiety that others would soon follow that have had similar issues. Another wonderful aspect of one person sharing their struggle with others is that you now have a collective group of people sharing the gift of bearing their burden. Instead of one person in the church praying you now have a group of people praying, encouraging, reaching out, etc. To feel loved on by a group of people is a beautiful thing.

But if the church doesn’t know the church can’t offer support and encouragement in the full capacity that it could if more people knew. And people in the church need to know how to respond and encourage with grace. Sometime we get scared and run the other way. Jesus never did this so if he’s our leader we need to see how he embraced people where they were with great love while speaking truth.

If you are sitting in a church service, ladies event, mens breakfast, small group, etc. and someone shares with you or your group that they are struggling with depression or that they are bipolar and in a funk right now please please please recognize that this is a huge risk they just took in sharing this information.

It’s a gift that they shared this with you. Treasure it carefully and respond with grace. Thank them for sharing that information. By all means don’t distance yourself from him/her. Send a note later in the week. Pray for them. If you notice they drop out of church for an extended period of time call them up. No, you didn’t ask to be invited into their problems but God just divinely allowed you to be welcomed in. He will help you take that next step. This is what church looks like.

Maybe a referral to a counseling agency is a needed next step. Don’t know of one? Ask your church if they have a resource information sheet of counselors and helps in the area. If they don’t then call around. Sometimes people don’t even have the strength and mental capacity to do the research. Do it for them. Give them options. You can’t make the call for them but you can do some leg work on their behalf.

Someone who has shared something deeply personal to their church doesn’t need a sermon preached at them. They need love. They need a listening ear. They need follow up. They need scripture read to them because they can’t even muster the strength to focus on one verse but they can listen to it. I did this with a godly lady struggling with deep depression. She loves God’s word and is an avid student of God’s word. In her deep pit of depression and overwhelming anxiety she wanted scripture read to her. To my knowledge she hasn’t shared about that time of deep depression with people in her church and we never talk about “that time” either. I can understand this I guess. Who wants to go back and remember their darkest days and talk about it. But so often we’re told in scripture to “remember the right hand of God” and “remember the ways of the Lord”. I don’t know about you but the times I see the right hand of God the most are the times I’m at my weakest. So as I remember the how God intervened, comforted and helped I’m also brought back to a dark place of great need and weakness. As hard as it might be maybe we’d do good to talk more about those days. It’s likely we’ll see God right there in the middle of it even if at the time it didn’t feel like it.

The thing I’m struggling with is when people blame the church for hurting them when what actually hurt was the truth being shared with them. A healthy church is constantly sharing truth with each other. Sometimes it’s through the preaching of Gods word on Sunday mornings and other times it’s in small groups in the week. Sometimes it comes in the form of corrective discipline, as Proverbs puts it, which is the way to life (Proverbs 6:23). This could involve someone with mental illness but it doesn’t have to be.

It’s wise to evaluate a church’s part in helping or hurting families with mental illness. We need a correct starting point in looking at these issues. But I also feel the need to say that there are many times that the church is doing it right but the blame is still placed on the church for failing these families.

For instance, Mama bear comes out when little Johnny is temporarily suspended or asked to leave the youth group for not abiding by basic ground rules. If Johnny was raging and beat someone up I’m sorry but there’s natural consequences that still need to take place even if you have a mental illness. Hopefully these times are dealt with grace and love and walking with the family through it. But I don’t think there should be blame placed on the church for enforcing ground rules even when someone with a mental illness can’t or won’t abide by those ground rules. Situations like this can actually go well resulting in restoration and the person re-entering. But it doesn’t always go that way.

I see gaps and misunderstandings on both sides of the mental health issue but mostly I’m encouraged that we are talking about these things. I believe Rick and Kay Warren have had a huge impact on the church in relation to mental health issues. They lost their son to suicide in 2013 and she now shares their story and it has opened up others to share their story.

May we keep striving in our learning and growing in these things.

Mental Health and The Church – Part 1

Mental Health and The Church – Part 2

** Leave a comment if you’d like to enter to win the book Mental Health and The Church. Come back by Thursday, March 8th to see if your name was drawn  and be sure to leave me your mailing address please. **

 

Mental Health and The Church – Part 2 of 3

Stephen Grcevich, MD is a Christian child and adolescent psychiatrist who describes what he calls a huge disconnect in the two worlds he lives in each week: work and church. What’s the disconnect? He puts it this way, “The families I meet through my work are far less likely than other families in our community to be actively involved in a local church. This reality is a tragic departure from Jesus’ plan for his church. The families I see in my practice need to hear the gospel message proclaimed just as much as my family does. They need good teaching, service opportunities, and small group community just as much as my family does.”

For those of us not touched by mental illness you may be thinking, “So what’s the big deal? Nobody is keeping these families out of church. They can attend like anyone else.”

I’m learning that a statement like that reveals a lack of understanding of mental health issues. I will be the first to say that I don’t understand a lot but I’m trying to. Most of my very limited understanding has come from hearing people’s stories and reading books like Stephen Grcevich’s, Mental Health and The Church.

There is a stigma attached to Mental Illness and thankfully there are people like Dr. Grcevich who are trying to help dismantle that stigma especially within the church because the church is often the first place people with mental health issues turn to.

This book has helped me see where I personally am buying into the stigma attached to mental illness in different ways. For example, the fact that the tagline of Dr. Grcevich’s book says, “A ministry Handbook for Including Children and Adults with ADHD, Anxiety, Mood Disorders, and Other Common Mental Health Conditions.” bothered me to a degree because our son has ADD. I had no idea that was considered a “mental illness”. I don’t like the sound of that. And it’s because when I think of “mental illness” it conjures up this crass visual in my head: a person in a white straight jacket, rocking back and forth and banging their head against a wall. Or the kids that shoot other kids in schools. That’s an incredibly ridiculous and inacurate over-generalization of what all mental illness looks like. That kind of ignorant thinking distances and isolates people. And I don’t want to do that because everyone deserves to know and feel the love of Jesus through his people.

We tend to look at people with physical disabilities with much more compassion and understanding than those with mental illness disabilities. For instance, when a child in a wheelchair with a physical disability is disruptive in a church service by making loud noises it’s considered okay whereas if a child with ADHD has a sudden outburst or is tapping the pew in front of them it’s not okay. Because often times people think that the child with the physical disablity doesn’t have a choice but the kid with ADHD does. He/she can control himself or his parents should discipline him/her more often. I personally think the disconnect here comes because we can’t “see” mental illnesses and therefore are quick to make faulty assumptions.

Mental Health and The Church has opened my eyes to having a greater compassion and understanding of those who come to church with a mental illness or who don’t come to church because of their mental illness. The depth of anxiety some people experience at the thought of having to shake someone’s hand or meet a new person is very real. I had no idea people struggled with this. Some people are completely stressed about getting lost especially if it’s a mega church because they can’t remember directions well. Others are afraid you will hug them or make them speak in a small group environment and this causes intense anxiety. Some kids have serious sensory issues and are truly sensitive to certain sounds, lights, textures, etc. Others simply can pull themselves out of bed to get ready for church because of the weight of depression.

If our reaction to these things is “Seriously? They just need to get over it” then we could be a contributing factor to the reason people with mental illness leaving the church or stay but feel isolated and misunderstood.

When mental illness doesn’t touch us personally it can be very hard to understand. And that’s why education and awareness is important in helping us to understand.

I will never forget being in a church with a family whose young child had a serious aversion to balloons and the song “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” So much so the child would have a full blown melt down with his hands desperately clutching his ears to stop hearing the song. In my lack of grace and understanding I always felt it was a “picky child issue” and perhaps a parenting issue and that it could be controlled. The child was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome and looking back it all makes sense. At the time I’m afraid I was quite judgmental and insensitive in my thoughts. I regret that so much. This child still struggles to find his place in the church and I’m afraid it’s partly because of people like me.

So how do we as a church help people with mental illness?

I believe it starts with an attitude of the heart and recognizing that mental illness is a very real thing. Mental illness is not a choice and it’s not always a result of sin (outside the fact that our entire world is touched by sin and everything is tainted because of original sin). The church historically has addressed mental illness by saying it’s all a result of sin. And the way you cure mental illness is by either getting saved or having more faith and praying harder. Case closed.

The inability to snap out of mental health illness is not because of a lack of faith. When we tell people to pray harder and read more Bible verses to rid themselves of depression and other mental illness related issues we are actually hurting people. Of course we want to encourage people to stay in God’s word, to pray and to seek God’s help. God can heal mental illness and we should encourage all people with these truths. But God doesn’t always heal. Look at Paul’s thorn in the flesh. He asked three times that it be removed and God didn’t do it. Why?

“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness. Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” II Cor. 12:9-10

There are often cases of mental illness where medication is necessary. A psychiatrist’s intervention is needed. And we need to let people know that this is okay. It’s not a spiritual cop out to get mental health help.

If you are not touched by mental illness be thankful by the grace of God you are not. But don’t just wash your hands of it since it doesn’t impact you. As a believer in Christ it actually does impact you. Here’s why: statistics show that 8-12 percent of teens experience anxiety disorders and 18.1 percent of adults experienced an anxiety disorder during 2015. Did you know that suicide is the second leading cause of death in the US among people ages fifteen to thirty-four?

This means that if you’re in a church of 300 people there could be up to 54 people scattered among your congregation that are silently or openly struggling with a mental illness. So this impacts all Christ followers because we are to bear one another’s burdens.

I’m learning how much of mental illness is a snowball effect. It effects family members and they are a separate group of people needing ministering to as well.

How can we practically minister to the person struggling to walk through our church doors that is plagued by mental illness?

In the book Mental Health and The Church there are some great suggestions to consider incorporating in your church. Some are simple ideas like offering a walk through to a family who has a child with separation anxiety. To see exactly where their classroom is in advance can be helpful. Many other practical ideas are offered to help ease problematic areas for children/teens dealing with mental illness.

Other suggestions are to openly discuss mental health concerns from the pulpit and for church members to share their own mental health stories. Post articles on your church’s social media outlet that talk about mental health help issues. When one person shares it often frees others up to share. Building partnerships with the professional mental health community and having a list of available resources for counseling, doctors, etc. was encouraged.

In this post I’ve talked about areas where the church can grow in understanding mental health issues. But there’s another side to things and that’s where it relates to the individual dealing with mental illness or the family of the one dealing with mental illness. What is their responsibility in all this when it relates to finding their place in the church and not leaving the church mad or hurt because they weren’t treated with sensitivity. I want to talk about that in our next post as well as list some helpful resources for families that are touched by mental illness.

Don’t forget to leave a comment to be entered in the drawing for the book “Mental Health and The Church” next Thursday. Come back to see if you won and be sure to contact me with your mailing address.

 Mental Health and The Church – Part 1

 

 

 

 

Mental Health and The Church – Part 1 of 3

The church across North America has struggled to minister effectively with children, teens, and adults with common mental health conditions and their families. One reason for the lack of ministry is the absence of a widely accepted model for mental health outreach and inclusion.

In Mental Health and the Church: A Ministry Handbook for Including Children and Adults with ADHD, Anxiety, Mood Disorders, and Other Common Mental Health Conditions, Dr. Stephen Grcevich presents a simple and flexible model for mental health inclusion ministry for implementation by churches of all sizes, denominations, and organizational styles. The model is based upon recognition of seven barriers to church attendance and assimilation resulting from mental illness: stigma, anxiety, self-control, differences in social communication and sensory processing, social isolation and past experiences of church. Seven broad inclusion strategies are presented for helping persons of all ages with common mental health conditions and their families to fully participate in all of the ministries offered by the local church. The book is also designed to be a useful resource for parents, grandparents and spouses interested in promoting the spiritual growth of loved ones with mental illness.

About Dr. Stephen Grcevich

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Dr. Stephen Grcevich (MD, Northeast Ohio Medical University) serves as the founder and President of Key Ministry. He  is a child and adolescent psychiatrist who combines over 25 years of knowledge gained through clinical practice and teaching with extensive research experience evaluating medications prescribed to children and teens for ADHD, anxiety, and depression. Dr. Grcevich has been a presenter at over 35 national and international medical conferences and is a past recipient of the Exemplary Psychiatrist Award from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). He regularly blogs at Church4EveryChild and frequently speaks at national and international ministry conferences on mental health and spiritual development.

In this series, Mental Health and The Church I will be giving away a copy of Dr. Grcevich’s book. Just leave a comment on this post (or part 2) and a name will be drawn on March 8th. Be sure to check back and message me your address if you’re the winner of the book so I can mail it out to you.

**Branda Wargo was the winner that will receive a free copy of Tears to Joy by Natalie Flake Ford.