How can the church compassionately support those with mental illness?
In John 9, as well as healing, we see Jesus confront a community’s attitude toward its outcasts. He addresses two kinds of blindness. First and obvious, he gives sight to a blind man. But another and important miracle happens as he exposes and begins to heal the blinding darkness of stigma borne by the man’s family and neighbours. In Jesus’ day, illnesses were often attributed to sin. So the disciples’ question was not, “How did this happen?” because they thought they already knew that the answer was sin. They just wanted Jesus to help them ascribe blame to the right party. Their question was, “Who sinned, this man or his parents?” Jesus would have none of it. “You are asking the wrong question,” he responded. He knew the question arose from wrong assumptions—presumptions based on ignorance and stigma.
A similar area of blindness in our community is how we view those dealing with mental illnesses. Like the disciples, our assumptions are often based on ignorance and stigma, and our wrong questions reveal that. What would help us clarify the confusion still existing around the issue of “mental illness?” that’s easy – learning more about mental illness! With the internet, we have access to more information, now more than ever. Don’t have the internet? – read books, ask professionals, or ask those living with mental illness themselves. I speak as someone who lives with mental illness, and as one training to be a Mental Health Nurse – I would much rather people ask me those questions about mental illness than judge and treat me according to what they ‘think’ mental illness is or the behaviours that come with it. There are so many types of mental illness; we can’t just paint everyone with the same brush – some mental illnesses are long term, and some are short term; some can be treated and cured with medication and talking therapies, some can’t. Some people may be psychotic, other people with mental illness may not. Mental illness is as complicated and vast as physical illness – the difference is there isn’t an unnecessary stigma around physical illness and so people are willing to listen and learn about it.
Once our awareness of mental illness is challenged, there are some compassionate and practical ways in which a church can help overcome stigma and reach out to those who are mentally ill and their families:
Make our church a safe place for those who suffer. To do that, a church body needs to be transparent about brokenness and acknowledge that all of us struggle with weak areas in our lives.
Equip our church with the tools it needs to serve those with mental illnesses and their families. Develop or identify our congregation’s theology of suffering. Train clergy and staff. Offer support groups. Create alliances with local mental health professionals.
Treat hurting people like people. Be a friend. Include them in gatherings. Invite them when groups are going to lunch. As needed, refer them on to professional help, but don’t pass them on. At the same time, set healthy boundaries in your relationships. Don’t expect them to be able to do that.
Address the stigma of mental illness by talking about it openly. Include general prayers for the mentally ill in congregational praying. Highlight and financially support local ministries who serve the homeless, the incarcerated and destitute mentally ill populations.
Treat those with mental illnesses and their families as you would any who have physical pain in their lives or are lifelong caregivers. Pray for and with them. Give them space to talk about what is going on in their lives. Attend to practical needs such as transportation to medical appointments; assist, when appropriate, with extraordinary expenses.
In the story of the blind man, what if the community had not been so concerned with assigning blame but instead had been consumed by administering love? What if their question, instead of, “Who sinned?” was, “How can we help?” Perhaps, instead of investigating the healing, they would have been participating in it.