According to the statistics, 1 in 4 people in your congregation is affected by mental illness. Mental illnesses are found in people from all walks of life; it doesn’t discriminate. Stigma keeps people from sharing their experiences with their illness, and the church is often silent in its support and care.
In the ancient western world people believed ‘evil spirits’ flew around and possessed people. In the 4th Century, when Christians established the first hospitals, people with mental illness were included among those who were cared for along with other types of illness. Yet as time passed, the perception that people with mental illness were possessed by demons “led to widespread persecution, including burning and torture alongside those accused of witchcraft.”
As people such as Martin Luther, John of the Cross and Abraham Lincoln identified in their writings that they suffered from symptoms we identify as depression, the perspective that mental illness was caused by demon possession began to decline. And yet the care for individuals with severe mental health issues moved from the home to hospitals. Many living with mental illness could be found in jails and the ‘poor house.’
By the late 1800s, in spite of institutions developed with humane protocols and moral treatment, the prevention and development of chronic mental illness continued. The response was for each state to build institutions to house chronic patients. These state-run institutions were not well funded for the long term and by the mid 1980s the number of individuals living in state-sponsored facilities was almost 1/3 of what it had been from its peak in the 1950s. As the institutions were dismantled, more outpatient mental health services were expected in communities. But the burden on communities to care for people with chronic mental health concerns has been greater than their capacity to do so.
Today there are advocacy movements working within the community to provide comprehensive treatment and support for those with mental health issues. Yet the stigma remains. Popular media, misinformation, fear that mentally ill people are violent in the extreme (a statistic that is not borne out against the general population), behaviors that result in social disruption and a host of other notions all conspire to stigmatize those with mental illness.
“Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but give yourselves to humble tasks; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” [Romans 12.16-17]
What can the Church do to show we want to embrace those with mental illness? Amy Simpson in her book Troubled Minds suggests several ways the church can respond, among her suggestions are the following: Get professional help if you are struggling with mental illness. Tell your own story, if you or loved one are struggling. Educate yourself about mental illness (Some resources are listed below). Be assertive and the stigma and shame associated with mental illness. Talk about it freely. Be in relationships and be present with those living with mental illness. Exude love and acceptance.
- Simpson, Amy. Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission. IVP Books, Downers Grove, Illinois. 2013. p. 137.
The Rev. Anne Reed serves as Canon for Mission in the Diocese of Southern Ohio. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.