Analysis: Churches must remove stigma of mental illness

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Humankind has struggled with the matter of mental disorders or mental illness as long as people can remember. The same can be said for Christians, from the time of Christ to the present. That comes from fear or misunderstanding—or both—about psychological disorders, experts insist.

kristen sagermug130Kristen Sager“There may still be church diehards who lack the understanding that we can’t ‘pray away the blues,’” said Kristen Sager, a private psychotherapist, licensed clinical social worker and clinical counselor at High Point University in North Carolina. “There is often an unspoken blame or judgment that we don’t apply to physical ailments. Churches could benefit from the de-stigmatizing that comes with exposure.”

Mental illnesses, Sager and other experts note, are not like other diseases. Chemotherapy won’t eradicate the illness, nor will a couple of cardiac bypasses improve the health of the person who suffers from a psychological disorder.

Mental health is complex. Mental disorders can have devastating effects on a person, and they can result in behavior that may be confusing.

In the Gospels, Jesus acknowledged several people whose symptoms and behavior resembled those of people who today would be diagnosed with mental disorders. Jesus acknowledged such people at a time when generally they either were treated as outcasts or hidden away as a source of shame and embarrassment to their families.

Even religious leaders were dismayed and angered Jesus not only devoted time to such people, but also chose to offer conversation and relief to these tormented and abused souls, often in miraculous ways.

Presumed sin

People feared what they didn’t understand, and fearful people come up with their own rationale for what they witness in the lives of a few. Some people still act as though mental disorders are self-inflicted—indicative of presumed sin against God or prompted by a lack of faith.

The stigma of disorders like clinical depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia should not be so great these days in America. Mental disorders are like divorce and cancer in the sense that they have touched almost every family, experts agree. Such disorders are pervasive, but they also are more treatable than ever before through counseling, therapy and medications.

Mental illness is on the agenda of schools, businesses and law enforcement today in part because it is so prevalent in society and day-to-day events in common public places.

dolye sager130Doyle SagerWhat is not so clear is how churches can reach out intentionally to members and others struggling with mental disorders.

First Baptist Church in Jefferson City, Mo., has offered support groups for families of suicide trauma and regularly provides meeting space for groups that provide support such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Al-Anon and Dementia Care Givers.

“I mentioned in a more recent sermon that I felt the church should start saying the words ‘mental illness’ out loud to get over the stigma,” said Doyle Sager, senior pastor of First Baptist in Jefferson City, Mo.

Talking about mental illness is a good first step for churches, added Kevin Payne, pastor at First Baptist Church of Independence, Mo.

Permission to seek help

“I personally find myself mentioning the issue of mental illness and modern treatments fairly often in sermons,” he said. “I also talk about it quite often with members. Just in the last two months, I have referred two different members to a local Christian-oriented counseling organization here in Independence.

“One of the things … pastors need to do frequently is to give permission for Christians to seek help in this area of life, with either therapy, medication or both,” Payne said. “There are still those who see mental health issues and the use of psychiatric treatments as something Christians should avoid.”

walter coplenmug130Walter CoplenWalter Coplen of Columbia-based Coplen Christian Counseling said he is glad to hear people like Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church, talk more about mental illness. Warren and wife, Kay, lost their son, Matthew, to suicide after he struggled with mental illness many years.

Sometimes it’s just easier to remain in the dark on mental illness, Kristen Sager said.

“At the risk of stating the obvious, we tend to avoid discomfort, including things we don’t understand,” she said. “I would guess that most churches, like most individuals, lack basic knowledge about mental illness, its origins, its treatment and its prognosis.

“Don’t get me wrong, I believe prayer is a powerful thing. But unless mental illness has touched someone personally, it can be very difficult to conceive of its debilitating forces. We still struggle to treat mental disorders like physical disorders or diagnoses.”

Myths abound

Myths abound, particularly for relatively unknown disorders like psychotic ones, she added.

“Many people think mental illness is synonymous with violence,” a myth perpetuated by a spate of school, theater and mall shootings by people later discovered to have a mental illness.

“Those who lack education on mental illness may lack understanding of how to communicate with those about their illness or how to communicate with them in general—fear of ‘triggering’ them; fear of hearing their troubles then not knowing how to respond; discomfort with how to set boundaries,” she said.

Churches are all about connecting, she added, but “when we don’t know how to connect with someone who has a mental illness, we inevitably encounter obstacles to welcoming them into our circles.”

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