“The reality is that we all know people who have had mental illness, depression, anxiety, and other problems. The more we talk about [mental illness] and bring it out of the shadows, the more understanding and compassion we’ll have, and I think the better care people will get,” Achtyes told LifeWay Research. “And don’t we really want our churches to be places of openness and of healing and a place where we can go with our challenges and our trials?”
Even Christian counselors sometimes forget their mentally ill patients still have souls.
Just ask Michael Lyles.
Lyles, a clinical psychiatrist, has a practice in Atlanta, where most of his clients are evangelical Christians. But not all them. Some have no faith, including a man who was schizophrenic and beset with hallucinations. This patient was a bit of a hermit, spending most of his time sitting at home watching television.
But after his condition stabilized, his life started returning to normal. He made some new friends, and one of them shared the gospel with him. Coming to faith in Christ didn’t take away his hallucinations or cure his schizophrenia. But it led him to a church, a new group of friends, and a better life.
One day the patient came into Lyle’s office with a question: “Why didn’t you ever tell me about Jesus?” He then shared with Lyle how his church and his new faith in Christ had changed his life.
“I would have never found this if no one had told me about the gospel,” the patient told Lyle.
Lyle says he sat there for a minute and then admitted his guilt. “I was just happy you weren’t psychotic anymore; I forgot you were a person.”
That kind of response isn’t uncommon, according to a new study on mental health and faith, co-sponsored by LifeWay Research and Focus on the Family. The study found that ministering to those with mental illness remains a challenge.
That’s partly because dealing with mental illness, like other chronic conditions, can feel overwhelming. Patients often feel as if their diagnosis defines their life, while counselors and even pastors can forget that people with mental illness still have a spiritual life.
As a result, churches sometimes miss the chance to minister to those with mental illness.
“Because of the way we have ignored mental illness, we are hurting people,” says Ed Stetzer, executive director of LifeWay Research. “We’ve created a stigma.”
Addressing the stigma
The LifeWay Research study was designed to address that stigma and to help churches better assist those affected by mental illness.
Researchers focused on three groups: Protestant pastors, Americans diagnosed with mental illness, and family members of the mentally ill.
They surveyed 1,000 senior Protestant pastors about how their church approaches mental illness. Then they surveyed 355 Americans diagnosed with a serious mental illness—in this case moderate or severe depression, bipolar, or schizophrenia. Among them were 200 church-going Protestants.
A third survey polled 207 family members of people with mental illness. LifeWay Research also conducted in-depth interviews with Lyle and more than a dozen experts on spirituality and mental health.
The study found that pastors and churches want to help those who experience mental illness. But those good intentions don’t always lead to effective ministry.
Among the study’s findings:
- Most Protestant senior pastors (66 percent) seldom speak to their congregation about mental illness. That includes the almost half (49 percent) who “rarely” (39 percent) or “never” (10 percent) speak about mental illness. About 1 in 6 pastors (16 percent) speak about mental illness once a year.
- About a quarter of pastors (22 percent) admit to being reluctant to help those who suffer from acute mental illness because it takes too much time.
- Meanwhile, family members (65 percent) and those with mental illness (59 percent) want their church to talk openly about mental illness, so the topic will not be taboo.
The silence from the pulpit and churches can leave people feeling ashamed about mental illness, says Jared Pingleton, director of counseling services at Focus on the Family. Those with mental illness can feel left out, as if the church doesn’t care. Or worse, they can feel as if mental illness is sign of spiritual failure.
“We can talk about diabetes and Aunt Mable’s lumbago in church—those are seen as medical conditions,” he says. “But mental illness—that’s somehow seen as a lack of faith.”
Stetzer says pastors should challenge the idea that someone is a bad Christian because they struggle with mental illness. Instead, he says, they should offer friendship and care to those with mental illness.
“We’ve sent the message that there’s something wrong with you if you’re a Christian with mental illness,” he says. “The truth is there is something wrong with you—you’re ill and you need help. And the church can be part of the healing process.”
Step one is talking about mental illness, so people know help is available. Researchers found two-thirds of pastors (68 percent) say their church maintains a list of local mental health resources for church members. But few families (28 percent) are aware those resources exist, and so don’t take advantage of them.
Read another article on this topic: Four Guidelines For Mental Health Issues And The Church.