The other day, I received this email from a Beyond Blue reader:
“I’m a Christian, and have been struggling with depression and my faith since my brother took his life 2-1/2 years ago. I joined your group for friends and tips on dealing with problems with Major Depression. I feel like I just make my church friends uncomfortable, and they can’t understand why I haven’t snapped out of it and declared amazing victory through my faith.”
I experienced that too, which was very disappointing. Because my faith is such a huge part of my recovery from depression and addiction, I didn’t understand why so few Christians, and even fewer pastors or religious leaders, knew what to say. One time in college I stood up in the middle of a homily and walked out. The priest was going on and on about how the faithful should flock to the confessional instead of a psychologist’s office because the real battle is fought in the soul, and a bunch of diagnoses and medication prescriptions only legitimize the behaviors and thought patterns that we should regard as sins.
Rev. Mark Brown, who used to write “Brownblog,” and now writes “Journey Deeper Into God’s Word” asked me awhile back to write about what churches need to do to help the folks in their congregation who struggle with mood disorders, and I would bet a third of them do, based on the newest mental health statistics I covered the other day.
I think it’s important to go over them again, in the hope that some of these suggestions will reach ministers who can make a difference. Here, then, are just a few ways that churches might begin to help those who suffer from mental illness.
1. Get educated.
One of the members of Group Beyond Blue, recently started a discussion thread called “Church + Mental Illness” and posted the thoughts of John Clayton, a well-respected author and speaker who was interestingly enough a devout atheist until his early twenties. He wrote this:
The first thing the Church and its leadership must do is become educated about the mentally ill. Education will remove misconceptions, fear, and prejudice. There are many in the Church that can help us in this education, especially those in our Christian schools and in our larger congregations who are full-time psychologists and psychiatrists. The worst mistake we can make is to expect preachers and elders to be able to solve all the problems the mentally ill and their loved ones have. Doing this is analogous to expecting a preacher to do bypass surgery, and the damage done can be equivalent.
It can be as easy as browsing some mental health websites, like Psych Central, MentalHealth.com, Web MD, Revolution Health, and Everyday Health; checking out nonprofit groups such as NAMI (National Alliance for Mental Illness) or DBSA (Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance), and others; visiting a library to see what kinds of literature they have available on mental illness; attending a lecture by an expert in the field at a nearby college; tuning into one of the top 10 psychology videos found on YouTube.com; visiting an expert’s website or blog; and finally, making an appointment to speak to a psychiatrist or psychologist in the area.
2. Talk about it.
As I said in my introduction, I’m disappointed that I don’t hear more about the problem of depression and anxiety in sermons today. I mean, if the landmark survey of over 9,000 people in 2005 published in the Archives of General Psychiatry was accurate in reporting that one in four adults have symptoms of at least one mental disorder each year–typically anxiety and depression–and that nearly half of all Americans suffer from a mental disorder at some point during their lifetime, with only a third of those seeking help, half of which are incorrectly diagnosed, than there are a lot of people in our world that are suffering. Why not address it from the pulpit?
3. Host a support group.
A church is a natural place to host a support group for those gripped by anxiety or depression. Some churches do host such groups, but they don’t mention it in the Sunday bulletin or on the church website–because so many of these are started by an outsider to the church–so most members of the church don’t have a clue it’s going on. There are church groups for widows, singles, young adults, even young moms. Why not host one for folks and/or the family of people dealing with mental illness, and publicize it in the bulletin, on the website, and in fliers visible to the congregation as they enter for worship?
4. Provide literature.
NAMI (National Alliance for Mental Illness) and other nonprofits are usually happy to provide free brochures to churches, doctors’ offices, wellness centers, or any location that would like them handy for folks to pick up on their way in and out of these places. Moreover, most churches have a library of donated books. Why not have available in the library a resource or two for people who want to learn more about depression, anxiety, or another mental illness? For a list of good staples, see my post on recommended books. Churches could even provide a book group for those who want to learn more about mood disorders and discuss related problems.
5. Hold a special service.
A few days ago, Beyond Blue reader Glenn Slaby and his family talked to a few priests at St. Pat’s Cathedral about holding a special service for the intention of those persons and their families suffering from mental illness. I thought it was a beautiful idea. In fact, it reminded me of Old St. Pat’s in Chicago that holds a Valentine’s Day service for all the couples who have met through the church.