(Photo: Amy Simpson Online)
Editor's Note: Leading into an important conference on mental health and the role of the Church hosted by Pastor Rick Warren and his wife, Kay, at Saddleback Church, The Christian Post is offering special focus on the topic such as the interview article below with one of the main speakers. CP plans to continue this coverage including reporting on The Gathering on Mental Health and the Church this Friday.
More churches should view mental illness as a ministry opportunity even though many Christians believe they are not qualified to help, says Amy Simpson, author of Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church's Mission. As it stands now inside the Church, mental illness gets a much different response than any other illness.
"When someone has a family member who is hospitalized, or even when there's a death in a family, the church doesn't ignore that crisis, they reach out by bringing them meals or making sure they have home maintenance," Simpson told CP. "It's very common for people to refer to mental illness as the 'no-casserole' illness because those kinds of things typically don't happen for families of mental illness. Typically, if someone is hospitalized for a mental disorder or breakdown, the church community ignores that issue because they're uncomfortable or they think they don't know how to respond."
Simpson knows firsthand the difficulties of caring for a family member with a mental disorder and says the church is perfectly positioned to help. She plans to discuss her personal story and give practical ideas on how churches can be supportive during the upcoming conference, The Gathering on Mental Health and the Church.
An edited transcript of Amy Simpson's recent interview with The Christian Post is below:
CP: I understand you have personally dealt with a loved one suffering from mental illness. Can you give us some insight on how you will speak about that during the conference?
Simpson: My mother had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and her disorder has affected my family tremendously, just like every other family that has serious mental illness. Even a mental illness that is not as serious as schizophrenia is still disruptive and still needs to be taken seriously.
I will be sharing some of my own family stories and what we've experienced and about how mental illness causes families to suffer and the ways they are affected. I'll also talk about how the Church can respond. The Church is very well positioned to meet some of these needs, but in many cases they're not doing that. I want to help people understand what the Church can do better.
CP: One in 4 American adults over the age of 18 is diagnosed with a mental illness in any given year. What type of lifestyle factors contribute to these diagnoses?
Simpson: I believe mental health professionals would point to multiple causes. One is the level of stress that we live with, another is our sleep patterns, our diet, exercise habits and some things that we don't choose like trauma. There are a wide variety of factors that contribute and some are mysterious. We can't say we know exactly what causes certain types of mental illness.
CP: Will the Church ever get to a point where they acknowledge that it's okay to be broken?
Simpson: I certainly hope so and in a sense I think we have to. Our lack of open acknowledgement of that fact makes us irrelevant to not only the people around us but to our own lives because we get together and behave as if everything is fine and we're all perfect.
That's also part of the Gospel message. If we're missing the idea that we don't have our own answers and that we need help and that this world can be a painful place to live and this world is really not the world we were made for, then we are missing a fundamental component of the Gospel.
One of the many reasons why it's important to recognize the Church's role in addressing mental health is because it's a tremendous ministry opportunity. It's funny that people have this sense that we have to have our stuff together when we get to church because studies show that when people seek help for mental illness, 25 percent of them have gone to a member of the clergy first. That is more than the percentage of people who have gone to a psychiatrist, a counselor, medical doctor or anybody else.
CP: Aside from praying and seeking God, what should the Church's response be for someone suffering from mental illness?
Simpson: We should start by acknowledging our own brokenness and the fact that all of us are messed up and we all have things going on that makes our lives less than completely satisfying. If we start from that place, then our efforts to reach other people will be laced with humility, compassion and with empathy and that's the only appropriate place to start in ministering to others.
I also think many churches need to go back and wrestle with the basic ideology of suffering because we're missing the idea that in this world we should not expect an easy, pain-free life. That's basic Christian theology but for some reason we've bought into the western prosperity idea that we've made enough progress as a human race, we have enough money and resources that we should be happy. It's faulty thinking. The point of life is not to be happy and comfortable all the time but we should revisit that idea and acknowledge that somebody who has a serious problem that interferes with their happiness and self-fulfillment doesn't make them less valuable.
Another starting point is looking at what churches already do because most churches know how to respond to people in need. When someone has a family member who is hospitalized, or even when there's a death in a family, the church doesn't ignore that crisis, they reach out by bringing them meals or making sure they have home maintenance. It's very common for people to refer to mental illness as the "no-casserole" illness because those kinds of things typically don't happen for families of mental illness. Typically, if someone is hospitalized for a mental disorder or breakdown, the church community ignores that issue because they're uncomfortable or they think they don't know how to respond.
Oftentimes, our first reaction to mental illness is fear and we think we're not qualified to help, but it's funny because most of us are not qualified to help with heart disease or cancer treatment and we can't make the grief of death go away. However, we don't have the same level of intimidation when those things come up. It doesn't take any special qualification to be a friend.
CP: Fear aside, what exactly stops the church from addressing mental illness the proper way?
Simpson: There are a few things but it depends on the church and even the brand of church. The biggest misconception is that mental illness is a spiritual problem with a spiritual solution and that if you're engaged in all spiritual aspects like prayer, Bible study and fasting then you shouldn't have this issue present in your life or if it is, it will go away. I would never discount the importance of spiritual practices, spiritual growth and continually addressing the spiritual needs of people, that's extremely important. On the opposite spectrum, some churches think mental illness is only a medical problem and they'll send them to get medical care thinking that their job is done. In those cases, the Church forgets the critical role they play in caring for the spiritual needs of a person in that crisis.
However, when people try to address mental illness with spiritual practices exclusively, they are laying spiritual burdens on people who need exactly the opposite. It's a legalistic response to people who need love and compassion, maybe more than they have needed it before in their lives. It's a crushing response. At least in my view, helping someone with mental illness is not just a nice thing to do and it's not just a thing that will be satisfying to people who want to see the Church doing good in the world, it's critical.
Mental illness is on the rise in society, we have a crisis on our hands … the church is perfectly positioned to help but we are not living up to that expectation.