Why the Church Drives Away the Mentally Ill

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In the last few years I have had the opportunity to speak or correspond with many people who struggle with depression or other mental illnesses. Pastors, teachers, DCEs, laity, each story is different, yet there are common themes.

One of those themes is how often the church, either at the congregational level or at the district/synod level, has failed these people. In all too many cases, their faith has been shaken to the point of disappearing. Now I don’t believe that there is any malice on the part of congregations or our church body. Far from it. But the sad reality is that we are driving people away from Christ by how we approach the mentally ill.

Why?

I have several theories about this. Here they are, in no particular order:

1. Because we so often equate clinical depression (or any mental illness) with some sort of character flaw, it is viewed basically as a sin. I think people instinctively know that this isn’t quite right, but they don’t have any other categories in which to place mental illness.

2. Everyone has weaknesses, and we work very hard to hide them. For many, depression unmasked is too close to home. It forces us to view our own struggles and failings, and that may just be too painful.

3. If we view the church as a place for the spiritually strong to work out, and not a hospital for the sick, then the mentally ill have no place.

4. The fundamental notion of “depression is in your head, get over it!” is so strong that we can’t help but judge others whose weaknesses are in public view.

5. Lutherans just aren’t very good at areas which aren’t “spiritual” in nature. If it isn’t about justification, then we just don’t get it. Hence, we try to place depression and mental illness simply into the “spiritual” box, and it doesn’t fit there.

Those are off the top of my head. What’s on your list?

23 thoughts on “Why the Church Drives Away the Mentally Ill”

  1. As a church body we have bought into the pragmatic success model.
    Individual congregations who have Pastors and Elders who are open about mental illness and do not treat it as a character flaw, sin, and support people are rarely those looking to build a “strong” team and church. Consequently, they have no power or policy making ability church wide.

    On the Circuit and Synodical level we are more likely to give a coup de grace to a pastor or leader who shows any weakness than to promote and uphold him.

  2. As a church body we have bought into the pragmatic success model.
    Individual congregations who have Pastors and Elders who are open about mental illness and do not treat it as a character flaw, sin, and support people are rarely those looking to build a “strong” team and church. Consequently, they have no power or policy making ability church wide.

    On the Circuit and Synodical level we are more likely to give a coup de grace to a pastor or leader who shows any weakness than to promote and uphold him.

  3. I have heard a sermon that purported people need more confession and less therapy, with the idea that we must own up to our sin and not pass the blame. Sin is an unfortunate side effect of my postpartum depression, which manifests as unfounded, constant anger. As a result, I yell, I'm inpatient, I'm unkind to my children, or I retreat and ignore them. For those sins there is the the gift of confession, but no less important are the medication and therapy that work to remove the root anger.
    I know the pastor well, and it was not his intent to dismiss mental illness. It is necessary to preach against our culture of blame and excuse making, but mental illness is quite a different matter. If it had been the first sermon I'd heard in the parish it is unlikely I'd have returned.

  4. I have heard a sermon that purported people need more confession and less therapy, with the idea that we must own up to our sin and not pass the blame. Sin is an unfortunate side effect of my postpartum depression, which manifests as unfounded, constant anger. As a result, I yell, I'm inpatient, I'm unkind to my children, or I retreat and ignore them. For those sins there is the the gift of confession, but no less important are the medication and therapy that work to remove the root anger.
    I know the pastor well, and it was not his intent to dismiss mental illness. It is necessary to preach against our culture of blame and excuse making, but mental illness is quite a different matter. If it had been the first sermon I'd heard in the parish it is unlikely I'd have returned.

  5. I have heard a sermon that purported people need more confession and less therapy, with the idea that we must own up to our sin and not pass the blame. Sin is an unfortunate side effect of my postpartum depression, which manifests as unfounded, constant anger. As a result, I yell, I'm inpatient, I'm unkind to my children, or I retreat and ignore them. For those sins there is the the gift of confession, but no less important are the medication and therapy that work to remove the root anger.
    I know the pastor well, and it was not his intent to dismiss mental illness. It is necessary to preach against our culture of blame and excuse making, but mental illness is quite a different matter. If it had been the first sermon I'd heard in the parish it is unlikely I'd have returned.

  6. I think fear and misunderstanding play a role here, too. We would like to help others out with their problems. Generally speaking, people are quick to help give advice for those who are hurting or ailing in some way. Unfortunately, many people don't realise that it is better to remain silent when you don't know what advice to give, and they feel that they have to offer it. Usually it will be delivered in such a way that sounds very professionally based. A book, a TV interview or show, or even a friend who has the same problem becomes the template solution for all the ailments of the mentally ill. Unfortunately, these are often inaccurate and down right wrong. However, when a long time member says that to someone, it can be seen as the church's view. Those with mental illness then think, "I don't want to go there!"

    There is also fear on the other side of that, where people who are mentally ill know when others fear them and when others understand them. They are not going to want to go to a place where they can't connect with others because everyone is too afraid to talk to them or have a conversation with them.

    1. When displays of inappropriate speach or behavior are involved (either by the mentally ill or those whose illness is fear of them), there should be opportunities for repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation. That would be a healthy congregation in action. The reputation of that kind of congregation would attract concerned people of every kind. Advice is often best applied to ourselves first. Perfect love drives out fear.

  7. I think fear and misunderstanding play a role here, too. We would like to help others out with their problems. Generally speaking, people are quick to help give advice for those who are hurting or ailing in some way. Unfortunately, many people don't realise that it is better to remain silent when you don't know what advice to give, and they feel that they have to offer it. Usually it will be delivered in such a way that sounds very professionally based. A book, a TV interview or show, or even a friend who has the same problem becomes the template solution for all the ailments of the mentally ill. Unfortunately, these are often inaccurate and down right wrong. However, when a long time member says that to someone, it can be seen as the church's view. Those with mental illness then think, "I don't want to go there!"

    There is also fear on the other side of that, where people who are mentally ill know when others fear them and when others understand them. They are not going to want to go to a place where they can't connect with others because everyone is too afraid to talk to them or have a conversation with them.

    1. When displays of inappropriate speach or behavior are involved (either by the mentally ill or those whose illness is fear of them), there should be opportunities for repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation. That would be a healthy congregation in action. The reputation of that kind of congregation would attract concerned people of every kind. Advice is often best applied to ourselves first. Perfect love drives out fear.

  8. As Christians we should be the first to recognize and respond to mental illness. I mean after all, our own God exhibited frequent bouts of mental illness when dealing with his desert peoples – I mean, my god -he slaughtered almost every living thing in a global flood! -haha. But, ahem…seriously we should take comfort in knowing that when nobody else understands us we can always go to a mentally unstable genocidal loving God.

  9. As Christians we should be the first to recognize and respond to mental illness. I mean after all, our own God exhibited frequent bouts of mental illness when dealing with his desert peoples – I mean, my god -he slaughtered almost every living thing in a global flood! -haha. But, ahem…seriously we should take comfort in knowing that when nobody else understands us we can always go to a mentally unstable genocidal loving God.

  10. There are some who we try to keep up with their members in compassion as they discover the nature of their troubles but "The system" of family and mental health professionals (that sometimes institutionalize individuals as treatments are attempted) seldom integrate the pastor. I have not had a psychologist or psychiatrist discuss my involvement with a member in an understanding way even when it was just the three of us meeting for the sake of the member's future good. Perhaps this book will help me communicate with both member and health care people more effectively for the sake of the Gospel.

    1. Any health care official worth being seen will state that there is a spiritual component to dealing with mental illness. Even if they are not Christian themselves and reference a vague spiritual presence that people should tap to help them with their illness, they mention it. That psychologist should have been happy you took such a direct approach.

  11. There are some who we try to keep up with their members in compassion as they discover the nature of their troubles but "The system" of family and mental health professionals (that sometimes institutionalize individuals as treatments are attempted) seldom integrate the pastor. I have not had a psychologist or psychiatrist discuss my involvement with a member in an understanding way even when it was just the three of us meeting for the sake of the member's future good. Perhaps this book will help me communicate with both member and health care people more effectively for the sake of the Gospel.

    1. Any health care official worth being seen will state that there is a spiritual component to dealing with mental illness. Even if they are not Christian themselves and reference a vague spiritual presence that people should tap to help them with their illness, they mention it. That psychologist should have been happy you took such a direct approach.

  12. Mental illness I observe is something everyone has a hard time with. It's swept under the carpet or just considered embarrassing. Often, the mentally ill try to hide it and most try to let them. It's taboo.
    Sadly, that's not exempt from our Churches. Where the command to love should overcome our inhibitions, we let ourselves shy away from uncomfortable situations. Decorum precedes "exposed nerves."

    And I think a lot of Christians just don't know how to help, and therefore try to avoid the problem. I've had that trouble in the past, and probably still today.

    I just discovered the blog, and I'm excited to see what it contains. Assuming nothing sends up red flags, I look forward to reading the free book, too!

    God bless you and your ministry!

  13. Mental illness I observe is something everyone has a hard time with. It's swept under the carpet or just considered embarrassing. Often, the mentally ill try to hide it and most try to let them. It's taboo.
    Sadly, that's not exempt from our Churches. Where the command to love should overcome our inhibitions, we let ourselves shy away from uncomfortable situations. Decorum precedes "exposed nerves."

    And I think a lot of Christians just don't know how to help, and therefore try to avoid the problem. I've had that trouble in the past, and probably still today.

    I just discovered the blog, and I'm excited to see what it contains. Assuming nothing sends up red flags, I look forward to reading the free book, too!

    God bless you and your ministry!

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