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The Seat of Sickness

May 6, 2013

“The soul is not the seat of sickness in the mentally ill; it is the brain, its synapses and receptors and so on, that render the mind broken. The soul, as the self in relation to God, continues healthy in anyone as long as that person is in Christ, relating to and witnessing to God.”[1]

Kathryn Green-McCreight is an Anglican priest, a professor, and she suffers from bipolar disorder. She has a unique understanding of the effects of mental sickness. She is also acutely aware of the treatment the mentally afflicted receive from churches. Early on, her treatment by churches was not positive. It was either neglectful of her issues or ‘prescribed’ prayer and belief. She continued to suffer under these circumstances. Eventually, she found support in the church as she addressed her health with significant medical treatment. She felt she is not worthless or condemned, but wounded and suffering.

Why am I bringing this up? First, the church MUST normalize the fact people suffer from mental health conditions. The reality is many in America, and conversely many in our churches, suffer from a variety of mental health conditions. These people need understanding, love, grace, and support from their faith communities. Instead they frequently find a range of responses from ignoring them, to sheer disregard for them. This hurts more than if those outside the church treat them that way, for they expect that. But we call our churches “families” and address each other as “Brother Joe” or “Sister Jane.” This family feeling is what makes the pain even worse when the church neglects the mental health problems of its members.

Second, church leaders are not equipped to handle mental health issues. Pastors and staff are trained to be theological experts. Their area of expertise is things of faith, not mental health care. In an effort to care for the flock, pastors and staff have tried and tried to assist a person suffering with mental health problems. The proper response is a referral to a mental health professional. Those in the mental health profession are specifically trained to deal with those issues. To do this, a pastor should meet and build a network in their local community. Knowing who you are sending your congregants to is just as important as understanding your limitations.

Last, church leaders do need to understand they are equipped to handle the theological questions which will arise when the person is wrestling with their mental health affliction. If possible, work with the mental health professional as the patient allows in understanding how your theological counsel may be of assistance. A believer will most likely wrestle with the existential questions of the “why me” nature during this time. They may question the goodness of God during those times.

Please do not misunderstand; nothing is simple about mental health issues. Some are driven by chemical imbalance, others are hereditary, and yet others come from circumstances or trauma. Some will require medication, others will require counseling. Yet if we think the church is exempt from mental illness, we are blind or deceiving ourselves. We must change the way this issue is addressed inside the church. Those who suffer are not demon possessed or unbelieving. They want to be healed. They want the issue to go away. These things are not strictly spiritual issues, but a medical or counseling issue. We must help them get the proper help from counseling or medical professionals and then work with the person as they try to address their theological questions as they work on being healed.

[1] Kathryn Greene-McCreight. Darkness Is My Only Companion: A Christian Response to Mental Illness. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2006. 101

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