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Rev. Angie Mabry-Nauta is subbing for James Bratt today. She is a writer and ordained Minister of Word and Sacrament in the Reformed Church in America (RCA). She served as a solo pastor for six years. A regular contributor to Christianity Today’s Gifted for Leadership, and member of the Redbud Writer’s Guild, Angie blogs for the Church Herald Blogs and at “Woman, in Progress…”. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter @Godstuffwriter.
The evangelical church world turned upside down last week when news of Matthew Warren went viral. The 27-year-old was the son of Rev. Rick Warren (The Purpose Driven Life) and Kay Warren. After a years-long battle with depression, Matthew took his own life. As far as I could tell from the outpouring of prayers and messages of love and support flooding social media, Christians responded most appropriately.
As Reformed folk, we look to Scripture for answers to life’s greatest questions. Unfortunately, there is no specific text that addresses mental illness. What is a Reformed Christian to do? How are we to understand mental illness?
The closest Scripture comes to speaking of mental illness is its mention of those who are inhabited by demons. (See for instance Mark 5:1-20, Matthew 17:14-20, and Acts 16:16-18.) This reflects antiquity’s understanding of how the world works. Sickness was not the cause of bacteria, viruses, or cancer cells. It was the result either of sin or of malevolent spirits’ capricious play.
If someone behaved, spoke, or moved his body in an uncontrollable or inexplicable way, he was declared to be demon possessed. She may be epileptic, she may be depressed, she may be schizophrenic, she may have obsessive compulsive disorder. Lacking the knowledge, vocabulary, and trained psychotherapists, wise and common people alike lumped all of these ailments into one evilly-oriented category.
While we understand more today, the church still lacks a good response to mental illness. Amy Simpson, editor at Christianity Today and author of the forthcoming book Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2013) found the church ill equipped to serve its mentally and emotionally ailing sheep.
- Ninety-eight percent acknowledged they had seen some kind of mental illness within their congregation.
- Only 3 percent of church leaders indicated they feel like experts in ministering to people suffering from mental illness.
- More than 77 percent of church leaders said they are approached at least two times and even up to 12 times per year for help in dealing with a mental illness.
- Almost 30 percent of those church leaders said mental illness is never mentioned in sermons at their church.
- Just over half of church leaders have reached out to the family of someone with mental illness within their congregation.
“Very few churches have ministries specifically geared toward reaching out to and helping people with mental illness,” Simpson reports. “So people with mental illness and their families continue to be lost in the church.”
So, when Scripture provides either outdated answers or no answer at all, what is the church to do?
Perhaps we pray that God cast out our demons that prevent us from caring from the mentally ill, – fear, ignorance, anxiety, etc. – and do what God does. We love and care well for those who are sick and their families, as those who suffer from mental disorders are indeed ill. In a recent article, Simpson suggests starting simply and practically.
Step one, which may be the most important one of all: the church must break its silence. Merely talking about mental illness serves to normalize it, remove social stigmas, and help remove the shame that people who suffer and their families often carry.
Also, the church could care for a mentally ill person and his family the same way that it does those who are physically ill or recovering from surgery.
“Families affected by mental illness need the same kinds of practical help,” Simpson says. “We can help with the cost of medications, which can be exorbitant. We can help with the expenses of hospitalizations and ongoing treatments. We can provide food, we can make sure their children have rides, we can simply ask them how they’re feeling, how they’re doing, how their treatment is going. We can tell them that we care about them and what they’re going through. We can visit them in the hospital.”
Additionally, the church can remain a journey partner with congregants who are in treatment. Oftentimes pastors and church leadership will acknowledge their lack of psychological expertise and refer someone to a professional. At this point, it is important that the church not lose contact with the hurting person and her family. If the church fails to do this, it sends a painful message.
“Unfortunately, [this] suggests that the church is not willing to stick with the person now that their problem is known, that their problem is too overwhelming for the church and perhaps too overwhelming for their faith and for their God,” Simpson writes.
As the body of Christ, we can do better.
“Share each other’s burdens, and in this way obey the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2).