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Mental health in the Church: Bipolar, a ‘no-casserole illness’?

Unsplash/Joshua Earle

Mental illnesses are skyrocketing in our culture. Families are trying to cope with the brain disorders of someone they love, while desperately looking for help and fighting hopelessness. Mental Health Awareness Month is a prime time to highlight several mental health stories designed to offer hope, motivation, and generate more solutions.

A friend’s poignant story is insightful. “I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder the same day that a church member was diagnosed with leukemia. When the family announced it and asked for prayer, the church rallied around them with prayer and a casserole meal train. I did not go public with my diagnosis because some churches view mental illness as a stigma, so my family suffered in silence. When I finally decided to share in hopes to help others, someone simply advised me to ‘repent.’ Bipolar is a ‘no-casserole’ illness.”

Most churches are compassionately active toward those facing bad news such as cancer, deaths, or a physical disability. However, those with mental illness and depression often hide due to the lingering stigmas about brain diseases. Admittedly, while some behaviors do add to the stigmas, the general public and Christians, tend to think that everyone is able to control how they behave, think, and feel.  Healing prayers are foundational, yet combined with correct medications they can manifest as dual miracles.

I read a helpful description recently that “mental illness is a flaw in chemistry not character.”  An article in National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) explains that mental illness is the second leading cause of disability and workplace absenteeism. It affects over 57 million Americans and their families, of all ages, ethnicities, faiths, incomes, and races. Chemical imbalances emerge from many sources, whether genetics, post-traumatic stress especially in the military, and those who have endured abuse.

I am among the millions who welcome the already focused efforts to shine a light of awareness and practical advocacy on behalf of individuals and families. Nevertheless, more attention is needed to educate others, build specialty facilities, and befriend those around us who live with mental health challenges.

Beginning in the 1990s, my husband, Paul, pursued prayers, counseling, and eventually checked into a Christian hospital for a month. He was finally correctly diagnosed with Bipolar Two in the year 2000. Prior to his diagnosis, our now 47-year marriage resembled a beautiful, yet tattered tapestry torn apart by his bipolar episodes accompanied by an addiction he repeatedly sought to overcome. Each time, Jesus patiently stitched us back together in what was most often a close, communicative, and wonderful marriage of shared goals in life, ministry, and laughter. 

With our mutual outrageous commitment and the miracle of prescriptions, Paul now successfully manages his brain disease. He often comments that his diagnosis was one of the “best days of his life” because he finally understood that his brain was beset with a chemical imbalance. The lights turned on for both of us helping to explain his emotional roller coaster of mental illness. Importantly, we also learned that whatever someone does or uses to stop emotional dilemmas can easily become an addictive escape hatch of some kind.

Ours is a journey of scars healed through forgiveness imparted by the Holy Spirit. Without Jesus, my personal pain could have resulted in divorce. It helped me that Paul wanted to get well more than anyone I knew. He was a man on a mission to change which gave me hope. Throughout the years, the Lord’s guidance and friends who loved us in our brokenness eased our tough times. Paul and I often remark that the Lord’s unconditional love for us despite ourselves is truly astounding. We are humbled that prior to his diagnosis, Paul worked for World Vision, we served on the staff of Mercy Ships, and Youth With a Mission in Romania.  Although Paul’s mental illness has been part of the montage of our marriage, our joys, adventures, and blessings have increased and overflowed.

Paul is now a co-facilitator for several in-person groups which meet in our church under the umbrella of the national Depression, Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA), one of the valuable sources of help. He is writing his second book, The Voices of Bipolar, gathering stories of others with bipolar or severe depression. It is not an academic book; instead, it will feature true-life stories to educate the public, undo mental illness misconceptions, and offer hope to individuals and families.

Paul has created a private Facebook group by the same name inviting others to participate, anonymously if they wish.

He is fully living out his life verses in 2 Corinthians 1:3-5 “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ.”

I speak for my beloved husband and me. If you or someone you love is suffering from a mental illness or is suicidal, please reach out to a trusted family member or friend, a church where you sense safety and help, and expert psychiatrists, organizations and agencies. Together we are stronger. Expressing compassion and friendship to those with mental illnesses and severe depression is such a worthy way to live and use our sorrows to bless others. And don’t forget. Casseroles are welcomed!

“When a train goes through a tunnel and it gets dark, you don’t throw away the ticket and jump off. You sit still and trust the Engineer.” — Corrie ten Boom

Arlene Bridges Samuels is the weekly feature columnist at The Christian Broadcasting Network Israel, and author at The Blogs-Times of Israel. Previously, she retired from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee after nine years as their Southeast Regional Christian Outreach Director.  

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