The Church’s Insufficient Response to Mental Illness

stainedglass_woman_asleep_smMy mother committed suicide after a long fight with depression. My church knew some of the problems she and our family had dealt with as she battled mental illness, but they didn’t really know how to react when I muttered the words, “It was suicide.” As with her mental illness, no one ever spoke to me about it. I don’t blame them, but there I was, grieving for a dead mother and trying to figure out the theological implications of her death. I felt like I wore a scarlet C for “crazy mom”. They were no help to me—even though I know they loved me. On one hand, I needed to believe that her eternal soul was okay. On the other hand, a lifetime of hearing that suicide results in hellfire and brimstone made me wonder. The platitudes of friends saying, “She’s in a better place” made this even more of a struggle.

A year or so after her death, I wound up in my first theology class. One evening after class ended, I told my professor the whole story. He was the first person outside of my church and family I shared this story with. I desperately needed answers and he was able to guide me in finding them. He talked about Martin Luther’s stand that suicide does not equal hell and pointed me to books about mental illness and the church. Rather than skirt the issue or avoid such a difficult topic, he spoke openly and listened intently as I shared my struggles with understanding the implications of suicide. Because he never seemed troubled by the conversation or judged my mom’s choices or her illness, I was finally able to feel relief, even peace. As grateful as I am that a scholar helped me, I wish that the church did more to provide this type of pastoral care.

After my conversation with my professor, I began reading as much as I could about mental illness and the church’s response to these diseases. What I found shocked me. Recent surveys found 30.5% of church leaders believe mental illness is a spiritual condition. Another 19.7% believe it’s demonic influence or possession (Simpson). Churches provide meals and hope for a person with a physical disease; yet, in many cases they do not know how to care for a person with a mental illness. Many pastors avoid discussing mental illness within the church despite understanding that mental illnesses are manageable conditions. People fighting mental illness need the church to accept them as they are and not contribute to further stigmatization.

The American Psychological Association reports that 25% of U.S. adults have a mental illness and almost 50% will develop at least one mental illness in their lifetime. We cannot truly be the body of Christ if we dismiss half of the population. We must seek to provide care for anyone suffering from an illness.

When a parent has a depressive episode, how wonderful would it be for the church to bring meals to the family? How can the church support a teen battling an anxiety disorder? What about the child who has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and needs to use hand sanitizer after touching anything? What about the adult member who is reeling from her mom’s depression and suicide? Do we ask our brothers and sisters struggling with mental illness how we can support them? Are we willing to have conversations we’ve never had before—to truly listen—to show Christ’s love?

The church is a community of believers. We gather together to worship God, bear one another’s burdens, and build relationships. We must make sure anyone is welcome. Some pastors speak of mental illness as diseases—not as spiritual conditions. In a church, we should be able to talk about our brokenness, our struggles. Talking about mental illness is a way to share in this. The world may not be ready to eliminate the stigma surrounding mental illness, but in our churches, we believe in wholeness and building relationships. We can be the ones who begin to shatter the stigma of mental illness. Preaching this way about mental illness from the pulpit reduces the shame associated with it. Openness amongst leaders allows the congregation to better understand that talking about depression or anxiety is no more shameful than talking about diabetes or cancer.

When I think back to the last conversations I had with my mom, I remember Christ on the cross crying out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Just as Jesus felt abandoned, so did she. We believe that God endures illness with us; it would be nice if the church did too.

Amy Simpson, Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission (Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2013), 138.

“Data on Behavioral Health in the United States,” American Psychological Association, 2016, (accessed March 23, 2016).

Stacie Whalen is a student at McAfee School of Theology. She loves Jesus, her family, and many geeky things.

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