My Dad was a minister, and I grew up in the church, where mental illness was rarely discussed. Those who heard voices or felt or saw things were demon possessed, and it could be attributed to a generational sin. Likewise, those with severe depression had a lack of faith and needed to pray harder and believe more intensely for their depression to be lifted. Medications were not needed, if their faith was strong enough, as God would keep them balanced and happy. Leaders of the church were even called upon to gather together and lay hands on such a troubled person to cast out the demon(s) and increase their faith.
Fast forward to the late summer of 1988, when my youngest son, Jared, was diagnosed at age 11 with Borderline Chronic Paranoid Schizophrenia, after six weeks at UCLA. (During this time, we moved from Alaska to Los Angeles for his needs.) All of my pre-suppositions and teachings went up in smoke, as I began to grapple with the fact that my God would allow my baby boy to have a mental illness. I had always been able to pray and have faith and God would answer my prayers. However this time, no matter how hard I prayed and how many scriptures I read, nothing changed, and God was far, far away…or so it felt. This is what really shook my faith: not that my son had mental illness, but that God would not “heal it” or take it away! I was angry at God and so scared; I felt completely helpless, because neither my husband, Dick nor I could “fix” him.
One night I was leaning against a fence, hugging myself, sobbing and begging God to heal Jared. God spoke to me so clearly and said that He would not heal Jared, but He would use his illness for our good and His glory!!! Great!!! I did not want to walk through that journey, and I told God so. In fact, I told God a lot of things that year and learned a lot about who He was, and who I was.
No matter where we lived, church was always hard for Jared (and me). He did okay in some activities sometime, but other times, he would have a hard time fitting in. No one knew how to work with him, and whenever he was in large groups, trouble was definitely in the picture. One parent even told me that my son did not deserve to be at church! As he grew, so did the problems. He was shunned and bullied, and while youth groups did the best they could, they really did not know how to handle him, let alone help the kids accept Jared.
It is amazing how uncomfortable and ill-equipped our churches are in knowing how to incorporate families and individuals living with mental illness. We felt the most alone and isolated, whenever we had to search for a church home. Some wanted to put Jared into their Sunday School program with the mentally retarded and others were uncomfortable, if we shared about our life. We had been told all the things that I had heard when I was growing up. Was there not any church that we could find that would “embrace” mental illness?
However, in Los Angeles, we eventually found a smaller church with a youth leader (who had actually worked for a mental health center in her home town), who worked with the youth and with Jared to integrate him into the youth group. Eureka! What a difference understanding and compassion makes. The youth accepted him, loved him, and included him in all activities.
God used Jared’s illness to help Dick and I form a nonprofit, a CMC called Pathway To Hope, Inc., which exists to educate, empower, and advocate for families and individuals affected by mental illness. We just celebrated our tenth anniversary and through these years, we have offered family support groups, survivor (those with a mental illness) support groups, courses for family members, advocacy, and the list goes on.
I find that mental illness is one of the last taboo topics for the church. Why is it that the very place that people should feel safe and accepted is often the place where they are shunned and rejected? When Dick and I were teaching our course, we would have parents and spouses tell us, with tears streaming down their faces, that they could not talk to anyone in their church, Sunday School, or small group about their mentally ill loved one. If they tried, they would either get unsolicited advice or blank stares and almost always, estranged friendships. Shame on us!
I do know God and His principles and He never goes against His word or His principles. He said to take care of the sick and those living with mental illness are physically ill. They have a biologically-based brain disease that is as real as diabetes, heart disease, or lupus. Most will need life-long administered medications. They live with medication side-effects that affect their overall health, which causes them to have a shorter life span by over 20 years, compared to that of a person without mental illness.
God says to be gentle of spirit and to look beyond the person into their heart/spirit. When a person has a mental illness, it affects their behavior, thinking, and logic. We always tell the families and our survivors to look beyond the illness to the person behind the illness. When they are sick (not on meds or meds need adjusting, etc.), they need love, acceptance, understanding, and compassion, with firm boundaries and expectations. They need a safe place to attend church and know that they will be accepted for who they are and not turned away because of the way they act. Our church staff, on all levels, needs to be trained about mental illness and the most positive, effective way to de-escalate and process situations that can arise. They need to learn how to sensitize congregations of all ages to worshipping with people with mental illnesses.
I love where my oldest son, Rod, attends church in Lawrence, KS, for they are a large Free Methodist Church with attendance over 2000. They have a special education department with people trained to work with the kids with special needs, right in the Sunday School classroom and children’s church, which includes my grandson who has Autism. I would have loved a church like that for Jared. It does not have to be a large church, for our church in Gardner does a great job of including special people of all ages.
Remember the saying, “What would Jesus do?” I wonder if Jesus would be pleased with our churches and the way we relate to all people, especially the mentally ill. Instead of being afraid of or ignoring the mentally ill, I encourage the church to become educated and compassionate about them. That’s what Jesus would do.