I'm a little late getting back to this two-part series on Mental Illness and the Church, based on the class I took at Regent in May called "Darkness is my Only Companion."
Mental illness is in the news because of the tragic shootings in Connecticut yesterday. Although I've seen nothing confirming that the gunman suffered from a particular mental illness, and I worry about the stigmatization of all mentally ill people as potentially dangerous to society, I welcome the discussion about how best to care for people with mental illnesses.
In this post I want to give some advice for pastors and friends seeking to love and support people who struggle with mental illness. This would obviously be better written by someone who is actually struggling with mental illness, but I'll do my best to pass on what I heard from those in my class.
5 great ways to love & support mentally ill friends
1. Actively fight against the stereotyping, belittling, marginalization and stigmatization of mentally ill people.
Mental illness is incredibly stigmatized in our society. The mentally ill are seen either as weak people who should work harder to deal with their issues and be normal, or as dangerous people to be feared, locked up, or at least avoided. This second one is exacerbated by works of fiction - how many evil antagonists do you know who aren't portrayed as at least a little bit "crazy"? - but also by the stories that tend to get picked up by news media. It will be interesting to see how this plays out in the reporting of the Sandy Hook tragedy. In reality, people with mental illnesses are more likely to be victims of violent crime than to be perpetrators of these crimes, because their ability to react quickly in self-protective ways can be impaired. These debilitating stigmas (stigmata?) have made their way into the church, for reasons I'll examine below. And yet I think if the church were to seriously examine its own heroes and saints, I think they'd find it plausible that a lot of them struggled with mental illness. Jeremiah? St. Francis? I say this because I also believe some mentally ill people may actually be more aware of the spiritual realm, and more in touch with the mystery of God, although discernment between helpful and harmful visions and spirits may take years to develop. Whether or not these people are prophetic, they deserve dignity and respect simply because they are made in the image of God. We talked a lot in class about how Jesus clothed the Gerasene demoniac after freeing him from his demons. How can we figuratively "clothe" and protect the dignity of those we know for whom mental illness is a daily reality?
Some ideas - let's jump on this bandwagon and "call BS" on the ways youth with mental illnesses are bullied and isolated. Let's follow John Franklin Stephens' lead and inform people when they're using words that wound and belittle. My personal challenge? Root out the word "crazy" from my vocabulary. I use it startlingly often.
2. Remind your friends that our brains can be ill while our souls are well.
What's the difference between your brain, your mind, your soul, and your "self"? We may all have different ways of distinguishing between these concepts, with varying degrees of overlap. The brain is perhaps easiest to define, because it's a tangible bodily organ. But while the "mind," "soul," and "self" all involve some functioning of our brain, they are also broader and more abstract, describing our consciousness and our ability to relate to others, including God. Although we sometimes talk in the church as though we're easily divisible into bodies and souls, we are not. We are whole, complex beings.
Mental illness is something that happens in the body, in hormones and brain pathways. Sometimes it's triggered by an event that touches the spirit, like an intense experience of loss or grief. Sometimes it has spiritual side effects, such as an altered sense of self, or a diminished ability to sense God's presence. Not feeling God, or not feeling joy or hope, is an awful experience, but it doesn't automatically mean you're outside of relationship with God, or that your soul is causing your mental illness. Even though our bodies and souls overlap, and even though we tend to associate faith with our emotions and thoughts, having a mental illness doesn't mean your soul is sick any more than having lung cancer means your soul is sick. It doesn't mean you are possessed or that God has given up on you. As my professor writes, "The soul, as the self in relation to God, continues healthy in anyone as long as that person is in Christ, relating to and witnessing to God" (101). We should also affirm that it's possible for humans to have a sick souls in all sorts of ways that have nothing to do with mental illness.
Having said all this, it's still necessary for people to figure out how to engage with God in the midst of their mental illness. So, we need to...
3. Bear their burdens, pray for them, and listen to their "dangerous" questions.
We are not called to offer advice or lectures, but to be present, to listen to their experience and to sit with them as they wrestle with pain and confusion.
Why am I sick? Why does anyone suffer? Did God do this, or allow this? If so, why? to test me? punish me? humble me? teach me? Is there meaning in my illness?
As Justin Lee pointed out in his new book "Torn," we need to remember that Job, in the Old Testament, asked similar questions, and his friends did quite well at supporting him... until they opened their mouths. We must be slow to speak, quick to listen, and always committed to pray for our friends.
The community of faith is crucial in these situations. We must learn to lament together, to weep with those who weep. But are also able to hold onto faith and express hope when our friends' illnesses prevent them from doing so. We can let them lean on our faith, especially in times of corporate worship. In a journal entry, my professor explained why she continued attending church and praying the liturgy with her congregation, even in her darkest moments: "I need to wrap my tongue around the gracious words of others, in hopes that their words will nourish my soul, somehow sink in and sprout into trees of righteousness, into songs of hope. Because I have no words of gratitude in me, only shame at my absolute hardness of heart." (87)
We can offer our presence when our friends are in hospital. My professor suggested that when people are in the psych ward, we should visit, but keep our visits to 15 minutes at most, since they can be more draining difficult than we realize. When she visits people, she asks them a few questions about how they are doing, offers to read a psalm, and to pray, and then she leaves and visits again after a week.
It's also important to be present and attentive to the family members of people with mental illnesses, offering practical support - e.g. meals, babysitting, retreat time.
4. Persevere in love, and you could be part of changing their brains.
There are many things we cannot do. Most of us do not have the expertise to lead people through therapy or prescribe medication, which is why it is crucial to refer friends to psychiatrists and therapists if they are not already in touch with them. Pastors are not adequate substitutes for these trained professionals. However, there is something I learned that underlines why friends and pastors are so important. That something is neuroplasticity.
It's a beautiful thing, the neurological adaptability - the pliability - of adult brains. A gracious, God-given example of redemption and transformation, I believe. In the womb and in early childhood, our brains are at their most adaptable stage, developing circuits and patterns, pathways between brain regions, ways of doing things and reacting to stimuli. Scientists used to think that after childhood, our brains were static and could not change. But studies of stroke and brain damage victims have shown that brains can adapt well into adulthood. Brains can re-wire themselves to adapt to new circumstances, creating new neurons, new pathways, and new ways of reacting. Positive stimulation through rewarding activities and environments of love and care over the long term will actually create new thought patterns and re-wire brains. More research is needed, but this suggests that our long-term friendships with mentally ill people may improve their experience of life to the extent of contributing to altered patterns in their brain. Through long-term love, we may be able do things that psychiatrists and therapists cannot even do. I find this incredibly hopeful.
5. Call up Sanctuary and have them come do a workshop or seminar at your church.
Sanctuary is a Vancouver-based ministry co-directed and founded by my former colleague Sharon Smith. They come alongside churches in order to "create awareness of mental illness, improve understanding of the mental health recovery journey, and facilitate caring activities to meet the needs of people living with mental illnesses and their families." Sharon has taught me much of what I know about mental illness, and I believe she and her colleague have much to teach the church as a whole. I highly recommend contacting them, especially if there are people in your church who are in need of care, or wanting the church to understand their journey with mental illness.