A Pastor’s Perspective on Mental Illness

Studies show that amongst Americans mental health issues are on the rise while options for treatment are on the decline. Rising insurance costs, lack of mental health coverage, lack of trained mental health professionals, and the closing of mental health facilities across the country have resulted in limited access and massive wait times for those in need of treatment. The average wait time in the ER for mental health patients in the state of Georgia is 52 hours.  The Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 20% of the teen population suffer from mental, behavioral, or emotional disorders, yet only 7.4% of them report having visited a mental health professional for treatment. 

With so many suffering and so little resources available, both the CDC and WABE report that people suffering from mental health issues are turning to community-based services such as school counselors, emergency room physicians, and law enforcement. These agencies are ill-equipped and overwhelmed.

I would like to add, so are pastors and churches.

While people have always turned to their churches in times of crisis, consistent with the data being used in the news, I see far more issues of mental health in the church now than I did when I began serving as a pastor 21 years ago.  

That being said, what I would like to do with this post is offer some reflections, instructions, and perhaps answer some questions of the growing mental health crisis in our country as it relates to the church. 

Much of what is called mental illness stems from a lack of mental toughness.

Mental illness is a very real thing. The Bible teaches us that because of sin, we not only have broken bodies, but we also have broken brains (Romans 5:12, Colossians 3:5, Psalm 38:1-11). We are all born fallen and flawed. 

According to the American Psychiatric Association, mental health is what it takes for us to function well in society; to be able to do such things as make decisions, have relationships, deal with stress, and cope with adversity. Mental illness is a term used to describe a disruption in a person’s ability to do those things. Mental illness can cover a range of issues from depression to dementia, from anxiety to schizophrenia, from eating disorders to bipolar disorder. There are numerous symptoms that range in severity, and just as the case is with our bodies, mental illness is treatable.

So when I say that much of mental illness stems from a lack of mental toughness, I am not making light of it. But I do think there is something about American culture in which we have become reluctant to cope with life and far too willing to chalk it up to a disorder. 

Life can be depressing. That does not mean you are depressed. Life presents us with many anxious moments. That does not mean that you suffer from anxiety. I think it is easier for some people to say they have ADHD than it is for them to do the hard work of paying attention. 

All of us face hardship, fight with ourselves and deal with idiots. We all think weird thoughts. We all have horrible days. The stress of it all is tremendous, but too many of us expect life to be perfect. We want no tension. We want everything to work out as we planned it. We do not welcome difficulty – we want a magic pill that makes us immune.

Truth is there is no amount of counsel nor a prescription that will bring healing when the problem is simply that you don’t want to deal with it. That is not called treatment. That’s called codependency and drug abuse.

We need to become reacquainted with the Biblical call to do things like suffer, endure, repent, release, and sacrifice. 

I think the question asked by Jesus to the lame man at the pool at Bethesda in John 5 is applicable to us. The man believed that if he could get in the pool as it was stirred by an angel that he would be healed (John 5:8). The Bible says that “He had already been there a long time.” The chronological note here adds to the tension of the story and demonstrates the sincere desire of the man. In that context, I think Jesus’ question seems a bit redundant. “Do you want to be healed?” Well . . . of course I do Son of God . . . how is it that you don’t know that?

Why does the all-knowing ask?

I can’t prove it, but my opinion is that Jesus’ question perhaps points to the presence of others on the pool deck who have no intentions of ever going for a swim. They have no intentions of getting well.

I see this often as a pastor. And I know that I may catch some flack for saying this, but there are people who wouldn’t know what to do with themselves if they didn’t have serious problems. It is as if they had rather stay sick than ever get better. Otherwise, they would have nothing to talk about.

People want to share their problems, but they don’t want to dive into the solutions. They want you to sympathize, but never consider your counsel. They want you to care. They do not want to cope. This is not a mental illness, this is a lack of mental toughness.

Furthermore, I think people who lack mental toughness and use it as a crutch are a detriment to those who really are struggling with mental illness. Those who lack mental toughness consume valuable resources and further strain a system that needs to be devoted to those dealing with mental illness.

It is not a failure of faith for a Christian to seek treatment for mental illness.   

Even though modern psychology has developed a highly nuanced language to more accurately describe the mental struggle of humans; the emotions, fears, and expressions of mental illness are not foreign to the Bible. King Saul, whose story is told in 1 Samuel, was a man of rampant mood swings. One moment he was praising David, the next he was trying to attach him to the wall with a spear. 

In Psalms 42 and 43 Korah asks “Why are you so downcast, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me?” In poetic language, he speaks to that part of his depressed self that he does not understand. He cries day and night and gets little sleep.

Anxiety is addressed no less than 15 times in the New Testament.

Jesus’ marquee sermon, The Sermon on the Mount, begins by promising the poor in spirit the Kingdom of Heaven. 

God has been dealing with humans far longer than we have. It is refreshing to know that God saw fit that the broken emotion of the human condition to make its way into the stories, songs of worship, and sermons recorded in inspired Scripture.

In reading these passages it is a common misinterpretation to believe that those suffering from chronic mental illness simply do not have enough faith. Just because the Bible says “to be anxious for nothing” does not mean we can simply stop it.

On several occasions in meeting with people, I have recommended that they visit a trained counselor, psychologist, or psychiatrist. Some have interpreted my recommendation as if I am saying that faith is not enough for them; as if I do not believe God can heal them. That is not at all what I believe.

I would first recommend an excellent article, written by Eddie Kaufholz, appearing on the website for Relevant Magazine entitled Does Going to Therapy Mean I Have a Lack of FaithEddie gives a wonderful description how it is always God’s act of healing even when we visit a physician or a trained mental health professional.

Secondly, I would point out that God has created humans not only spiritual, but physical, mental, emotional, and sexual. There are a lot of layers to who we are and they are all intertwined. The Bible captures this hodge-podge of who we are with the word “soul.” Some would say that God created man body, soul, and spirit and they point to Genesis 2:7 in defense. I get what they are saying, but seeing man in trichotomy fails to capture what the Bible means when it uses the word soul, especially in Genesis 2:7. Notice the text. The Bible does not say that God gave man a soul, nor does it say that He was created with a soul. The Bibles says rather that God formed the man’s body, breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and he “became a living soul.”

Man doesn’t have a soul. He is a soul.

As such, it is those interconnected layers that make us what we are. This is why a psychologist may recommend that you get more exercise. This is why your physician may prescribe you a medication that helps with symptoms of anxiety but also recommend that you see a counselor. This is why your pastor may tell you to see your doctor and your counselor and it not be a failure of your faith. It is God who has made us who we are and it is in His grace that He has given us various means to treat troubled souls.

The church needs to be better prepared for the mentally ill both in compassion and in counsel.

If there is anything positive in what is happening with our growing crisis of mental health it is that the stigma of mental illness is beginning to fade. Perhaps one of the reasons the numbers are growing is because people sense that there is more freedom to share what they feel.

As a pastor, I sense that the church is doing a better job of dealing with the issue of mental illness theologically. We are addressing it more and more in sermons. We are seeing it mentioned more in our small group curriculums. Because there are more of us dealing with it, people are talking about it in the course of conversation and finding the support they need in brotherly love. We need to continue to foster this compassion. 

The way Pastor Rick Warren openly addressed the loss of his son to suicide was a landmark moment in raising awareness and acceptance in the church concerning mental illness. If you have not watched the sermon series sparked from this moment, How to Get Through What You’re Going Through, it is well worth your time. (http://saddleback.com/watch/media/series/2040/how-to-get-through-what-youre-going-through).

Compassion is helpful, but we also need to offer counsel. I took a few pastoral counseling classes in my undergrad and master’s level work, and while these fall far short of clinical counseling, they help. I am always reading and learning, seeking to become more of a help for people. As the burden of helping the mentally ill grows in communities and churches, I think it is imperative that churches train concerned people in their congregation how to coach, support, and counsel. If nothing else, these people may offer the bridge of support the hurting need while they wait for professional services to become accessible. 

Conclusion:

In some form or fashion, because of sin, we are all broken. If not, just wait, you are breaking. When things within you begin to fall apart, realize that God has created you fearfully and wonderfully. As such, we can be assured that He has not forgotten you, but also realize that you may not be an easy fix. You need prayer. But faith does not exclude the professional disciplines.

We have a growing problem, but I have full confidence that as awareness grows, we will get better at dealing with the issue. The good news is that mental illness is coming closer to home. The days of sending people away are coming to a close. The Bible calls us to love our neighbors as ourselves – mentally ill and all.  

Question:  

Do you have an experience with mental illness you would like to share? How did you help or how did you get help? As the issue comes more to the forefront of our awareness, what are some community and church-based solutions you feel would be helpful? How can churches become more involved? Please share.

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The Grace, Hope, and Love Daily Devotional: 52 weeks of great stories and devotions with Scriptural insight from some of America’s greatest pastors, evangelists, and authors, to help you on your daily walk. I contributed week 50!

Posted in Biblical Conversations About Culture, Counsel and tagged , , .

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