Can we talk about faith and mental illness? You may know someone with a mental illness that has been hurt by a well-meaning but ill-equipped faith community.
Maybe that person is you.
Faith and Mental illness: What is mental illness, and how widespread is it in our communities?
The National Institute of Mental Health, the lead federal agency for research on mental illness, defines mental illness as a mental, behavioral disorder that can vary in impact from no impairment to mild, moderate, and even severe impairment. They note that a severe mental illness can cause significant functional impairment, interfering with or limiting one or more major life activities.
Mental illnesses include but are not limited to anxiety disorders, mood and eating disorders, impulse control and addiction disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and personality disorders.
The NIMH’s research found that nearly one in five U.S. adults lives with a mental illness. The NIMH anticipates a sharp increase in the number of individuals with mental illness due to the pandemic.
Faith and Mental Illness: Why do I feel qualified to address this issue?
I have lived at the intersection of faith and mental illness for most of my life.
I suffer from PTSD. I know firsthand the shame that often accompanies an individual who experiences mental illness in a faith-based community. The unstated but implied belief by some that hidden sin or lack of faith is the primary cause of an individual’s mental illness.
As a care minister, I have spent a lifetime with hurting people, some of whom had an undiagnosed mental illness. I have made mistakes, sometimes causing unintended harm through my ignorance.
My personal experience with mental illness and a lifetime of care ministry gives me a unique perspective.
There are thirteen things that the mentally ill would communicate to those in the faith community who are willing to listen.
Faith And Mental Illness: What The Mentally Ill Need To Say And What Faith Communities Desperately Need To Hear.
If the mentally ill could speak to faith communities, what would they say?
(I know that I cannot speak for everyone who has a mental illness. However, I believe the following statements reflect many who have a mental illness.)
- I need to feel safe. I long to relax, experience warmth and acceptance without fear of additional injury.
2. When possible, I need you to be physically present with me. Your physical presence communicates that what I am going through is significant and that they truly see me.
3. I need you to listen and not try to fix me. I have health care professionals suggesting ways to address my issues. If I came to your faith community, I am looking for something they have not provided, not more of the same.
4. Please do not diminish the significance of what I am going through. Suffering is not a competition. Someday, comparisons to what you or others have experienced may be helpful, but not right now.
5. I am wounded and fear additional or double harm. I have shared my heart and had it broken. The second injury was often worse than the initial harm. It will take time to earn my trust.
This is especially important to the faith community. When we fail to interact well with the mentally ill, we increase the impact of the original injury. Therefore, it is of utmost importance that we handle the initial conversation well.
6. I need the freedom to be genuine about how I feel without condemnation or instant correction. Can you be honest with me as well? Vulnerability and transparency are two-way streets.
7. Can God take my mental illness and use my weakness for his glory? Is that even possible?
8. I need to know that my mental illness is not a barrier to acceptance in a faith community.
9. Show me that God loves me and will not abandon me. I need to see God’s love through your interactions with me.
10. Will your faith community accept and celebrate whatever method God uses in my healing?
11. Not all mental illnesses result from bad choices or lack of faith. There are genetic and trauma-related factors that may need to be considered.
12. I need to know that my mental illness will not make me ineligible to serve in ministry.
13. I need the songs and psalms of lament included in corporate worship. I need to know that God doesn’t need me to put on a happy face to accept me.
These are just a few of some typical comments from the mentally ill. Of course, any mistakes, oversights, or generalizations are unintentional.
The only way we learn to create a safe environment in faith communities is by asking the mentally ill, the traumatized, the hurting whether they feel safe in our presence and then acting on that feedback.
Would you consider sharing this with someone in your faith community?
If you liked this consider reading more about Social Media and Anxiety.
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My mission is to help individuals and churches become safe havens for the broken.