How often do I meet with a new client who tells me they have delayed seeking mental health treatment because of what their faith community might think of them?
How often do I meet with a new client who tells me a church leader pressured them to stop their mental health medication?
How often do I meet with a new client who tells me a church member insinuated to them that seeking mental health treatment is a sign of weakness?
I wish that every faith leader would hear me:
Mental illness does not equal sin.
Suicide does not equal hell.
Mental illness does not persist because of failure to believe or trust enough in God.
Church folk: please stop preaching that it does.
Instead, arm yourself with information because church is often the first place someone who is struggling will go for help and support.
Here are 5 tips for leaders when it comes to addressing mental health in your faith community, with action items to follow tomorrow:
1. Recognize the prevalence. 25% of the current US population face mental illness issues. Compare this to the 11.5% currently with heart disease, 8% currently with diabetes, and 1.59 million of the population being diagnosed with cancer annually (Simpson, 2013). Mental Illness is more pervasive than all of these, yet is avoided, brushed under the rug, and remains taboo.
2. Adapt your language. These words and phrases have become casually and commonly used in our everyday language: Psych ward, psycho, shrink, ‘gone mental’, ‘institutionalized’, ‘nuttier than a fruit cake’, ‘she belongs in a straightjacket,’ ‘he should be committed.’ This is demeaning and oppressive language. I would challenge you to change especially the phrase “she committed suicide” to “she completed suicided” or simply “she suicided.” This subtle change in vernacular leaves out the connotation that those with depression have somehow broken a law.
3. Be aware of pre-existing notions. A number of people are taught that if they would only pray enough, they would be healed of their depression. Could this happen? Sure. But what if it doesn’t? All that’s been accomplished is to reinforce that such prayers are inadequate, and perhaps God doesn’t love him/her as much as they believed. As Ann Simpson states, “Spiritualizing mental illness translates to blaming sick people for their illness” (2013).
4. Examine why you might be hesitant, apprehensive or cautious. Be honest with yourself. Do you perceive mental illness to be a choice or a disease? Do you worry mental illness is associated with increased risk of violence? Are you wary of the very tangible effects of mental illness? They can be heady. Diabetes likely would not cause a person to lose his job, become homeless, and alienate himself from his family; but schizophrenia and alcoholism could. Your personal stigmas are reflected in your words and reflexes more than you realize.
5. Realize the gravity of the lack of a cure. Devastatingly, there is no cure yet, only management and remission. Life expectancy of a person with schizophrenia is approximately 13-30 years shorter than someone without mental illness (Sweers, et. al, 2011). We are literally discussing life versus death.
Of note: Please do not perceive any of these statements to be directed to or specific toward my church home. Which is amazing by the way. You’re missing out if you haven’t been: www.whitewatercrossing.org.
Simpson, A. (2013). Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission. Westmont: InverVarsity Press.
Sweers, K., et. al. (2011). End-of-Life Care: Perspectives and Expectations of Patients with Schizophrenia, Archives of Psychiatric Nursing, 26, 246-252.