By Jacqueline J. Holness
During Easter weekend I watched The Undershepherd, a provocative movie about a minister whose power over his congregation and growing television ministry led him to morph from a man of God into a monster. The movie explored a number of cultural issues from abortion to eating disorders. One scene in the movie, however, particularly impacted me because I’ve concluded it’s an issue that the church has yet to sufficiently address.
In this scene, the minister, in dramatic fashion, declares that a woman in his congregation no longer needs to take psychiatric medication because she has been healed! However, some time later, the woman attacks the minister as he leaves the church. Her wild eyes and hair and erratic words demonstrate that she has not been healed, revealing the minister’s error in telling her to discard her medicine.
A Great Opportunity
This may be an extreme example of how the church potentially mistreats mentally ill members, but I’ve decided there’s some truth to it. The church does amazing work ministering to those who need food, shelter, clothing, and monetary help. But what about those whose problems come from within instead of without? According to the National Institute of Mental Health, about one in four American adults suffers from a mental disorder; so the more intentional the church becomes about this ministry opportunity, the more it can impact this community.
However, some Christian mental-health professionals believe that before the church can help those who suffer from mental illness, we must first examine how we view them. In her 2009 lecture “Toward a Theology of Mental Illness,” Marcia Webb, associate professor in the department of clinical psychology at Seattle Pacific University, describes her investigation of the church’s attitude toward mental illness. “Over the years, in my own experience as a Christian, I often heard statements in church settings, from both congregants and religious leaders, associating mental illness with lack of faith.” According to Webb, this belief is problematic because it leaves mentally ill Christians without help to “bear the full responsibility for both the onset, and the alleviation, of mental illness, when demonic forces are not to blame.”
One way Webb determined the church’s attitude was to examine the references to mental illnesses such as depression in Christian books. In her study “Representation of Mental Illness in Christian Self-Help Bestsellers,” she states, “There were no occasions in which best-selling authors advised the development of church-sponsored ministries or faith-based support groups for those members afflicted with this disorder and for their families.”
As a result, some Christians feel they have been hurt rather than helped by their churches. In his study “Demon or Disorder: A Survey of Attitudes Toward Mental Illness in the Christian Church,” Matthew S. Stanford, a Baylor University professor of psychology, neuroscience, and biomedical studies, discussed what happened when Christians approached their congregations for help in treating them. “The results of the present study suggest [that] a high percentage (approximately 30%) of mentally ill Christian congregants who seek counsel from the Church have interactions that are counterproductive to successful treatment.”
A Positive Impact
Both experts, however, believe the church can have a positive impact in this area. Webb says, “Church leadership could actively work to secure Christian health professionals to teach Sunday school classes regarding various mental illnesses, Biblical approaches to mental illnesses, and stigma regarding mental illnesses.”
A Christian friend who suffers from bipolar disorder agrees that the church could be very instrumental in helping mentally ill members. “One thing faith communities could do,” my friend says, “is have a structure in place so that people who are emotionally hurting could connect to a support system. I think much of the depression we feel is because we are not connected to one another.”
Carlene Hill Byron, former director of communications for Vision New England, an evangelistic association, described how one housebound, schizophrenic man received help from his church. In her article “1 in 4 Households in Your Church Is Afraid to Tell You This Secret,” she writes, “The secretary of his small church talks to him by telephone every weekday. Several other members take weekly calls at designated times to help break his isolation.
While the church is not a hospital or mental health facility, it should be a beacon of hope and healing for all.
Jacqueline J. Holness, a member of Central Christian Church in Atlanta, Georgia, is a correspondent for Courthouse News Service,
an online, national news service for attorneys. Contact Jacqueline at afterthealtarcall.com.