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Church and Mental Illness – Professional Advice

May 20, 2013

From time to time, I will invite another writer to join the discussion on Anafalz. Today, I called upon my friend Chelsea Hall to join us and speak to the church from a Christian therapist’s perspective on mental illness in the church. Her bio can be found at the end of her article.

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“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:35 NIV)

As a therapist and a Christian I am well aware of the problems mental health care can present to the Church. The primary problem is the Church consists of imperfect humans, who have a variety of beliefs regarding counseling. These beliefs range from those who claim that Christians experiencing depression need to read the Bible more, to those who claim counseling is a vital part of modern Christianity. A secondary problem is summed up by the old adage “ignorance is the foundation for fear and hate.” Unfortunately, many good Christians have allowed their ignorance to lead them to the avoidance or rejection of people with mental health issues. As a result the Church has a reputation for not helping those with mental illness feel welcomed.

The scripture at the beginning of this post reflects the solution to the Church’s problem of mental health care. Christ loved and accepted everyone, regardless of their abilities or strengths. If the Church desires to be truly Christ like, as we are called, then we need to change how we approach those with mental illness. The first thing the Church can do to help those with mental illness feel welcomed is to educate her members about mental health and counseling. In contrast to many opinions, counseling is only one more aid God has given humanity, just like he gave us physicians to assist us with our physical health. Counselors do not perform miracles, brainwash their clients, or otherwise change the client. Instead counseling is a place for people to go to deal with the wounds inflicted by life, and to receive assistance in coping with problems.

No one chooses to be ill physically, nor do people choose to be ill mentally; sometimes mental illness arises from chemical imbalances in the body, other times it is the result of traumatic events, or the environment they were raised in. It is important for the Church to understand that the need for counseling is not unusual in our fallen world, nor is it a sign of weakness. It is also important to understand that mental illness is not always permanent.

The second thing the Church can do is to love God and their neighbor as themselves. As Jesus so well-defined it, our neighbor is anyone in need. If we follow Christ’s example it is not hard to know what we can do to help those with mental illness in the church, whether we understand mental illness or not. The list that follows gives a few specific examples of how to love your neighbor when they are dealing with mental illness.

Don’t isolate the individual – talk to them, listen to them when they need to talk, call them when they are absent. Ask what you can do to help. Do all the things to include them in the fellowship of the church that you would do for someone else. And maybe a little more, be patient when they don’t understand, or when they need encouragement to join the group. Don’t give up on them, Christ didn’t.

Don’t be offended by their moods or actions – many people suffering from mental illness are very sensitive to rejection or criticism, they are hurting and may be unable to respond to your kindness without breaking down completely, or they may be unable to read or respond to social cues (like teasing, please and thank you, etc.). If you spend time with them, you will know how to interact with them.

Support their families – they are under stress and need you to show them you care. You can ask the family about their progress, and what you can do to help. Sometimes they just need someone to listen to them.

Let the minister support them spiritually – they still need prayer and spiritual guidance, even when they are receiving help from physicians or counselors outside the church. Don’t attempt to guide them, or argue with them about doctrine, just treat them kindly and pray for them.

A special note that is really important, when Church members do speak with people dealing with mental illness, some will share their feelings about suicide. Do not immediately attempt to persuade them to change their minds! Be compassionate and ask them about their feelings: how do you feel right now, why do you feel that way, and so forth. Assure them of your love for them, and of the Lord’s. Find out if they have a plan (a place, a time, a method) for carrying out their feelings of suicide, and if they do ask them if you can bring them to a hospital to get help. If things get out of hand, you can call 911. If they do not have a plan, then assist them in getting help if they will accept it; refer them to the Pastor, and to a counselor/physician.

I hope these few examples will assist the members of the Church is realizing that welcoming and helping the person with mental illness is no harder than loving others as Christ loved the Church. Remember you don’t have to understand in order to love unselfishly, just give of yourself to everyone around you.

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Chelsea is a registered Marriage and Family Therapist Intern (IMF 55420), and is currently working on her Doctor of Ministry degree in Congregational and Family Care at Bethel Seminary (MN). She holds an M.S. in Counseling (Marriage and Family Therapy) (2011), a B.A. in Psychology from CSUEB (2009), as well as a B.A. in Music and Worship Leadership from Patten University (2012). Chelsea has served in ministry for 13 years, involving child, youth and music leadership, and further experience in counseling and supportive care for ministry and families. Currently at the Christian Counseling Center in Fremont, California, she enjoys working with individuals, couples and families of all cultural and religious backgrounds, helping them to cope with difficult life experiences in creative and holistic ways. Her areas of focus include: anxiety, depression, chemical dependency, identity development, spiritual issues, developmental disorders, and relationship and family therapy. A second focus of Chelsea’s work is that of providing a supportive, protected space for Pastors/Ministry leaders and their families in times of stress, working to rekindle their joy in each other and their ministry.

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