by Susi Lamoutte
Amy Simpson, in her book Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission, provides both information about mental illness and a portrait of how people who are mentally ill and their families often face life. Amy has served as a writer and general editor for various publications related to Christianity Today. She was compelled to write this book because as a child, teenager, and now as an adult she has experienced a mother who suffers from schizophrenia. The book includes her story of living in isolation because many people, even in church, initially avoided the problem since they did not know how to respond. In addition to her own experience, Amy writes based on her survey of 500 churches, interviews of people suffering from a mental illness or their families, and clinical research. Her goal is to help the church better understand mental illness and how to help those suffering from it. The book is compelling and informative. Here is some of what I learned.
Each year around 25 percent of the adult population receives a diagnosis of mental illness. Serious or chronic mental illness is suffered by six percent of the population, or one in seventeen people. This would include major depression, anxiety or panic disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, borderline personality disorder, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder and more. (Amy briefly describes these.) Much mental illness is lifelong—treatable, but not curable—similar to many other illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis and asthma. We are comfortable with illnesses of major organs, joints, bones, blood, or any other parts or cells in the body, but not so much with illnesses of the brain. Amy makes a strong case that mental illness is no different than any other kind of illness. It is not chosen, not deserved, and not a punishment. It is physical and often genetic, and much of the time misunderstood.
Individuals and families experiencing mental illness have challenges on many levels. First, there is the illness itself. Second, and looming, is the stigma that is associated with mental illness. Third, there is the need for help—beyond medication and therapy—help that is found in friendships and people walking alongside, but is often non-existent. Stigma makes it virtually impossible for many struggling with mental illness to reach out for support. Will they think I’m crazy? Will they reject me? I shared with a church leader and no one ever followed up so it must not be okay. I don’t want to be a burden. Amy also addresses many more challenges.
Reflecting on SBCC, I know of people with severe mental illness who have shared with close friends, or their homegroup, and been cared for tremendously. Reconsider, however, the statistics. One out of seventeen of us suffers from a severe mental illness. There are also family members among us—spouses, parents, children, siblings—living with mental illness in their midst. Many of these do not share or ask for help. We worship with people each Sunday who are suffering in silence and isolation!
My biggest takeaway from reading Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission, is that we must kill the stigma! We all have issues and illnesses of various types. Recently I heard someone say, I’m not okay, you’re not okay, and that is okay. It’s okay to have arthritis, and it’s okay to live with a mental illness. Some of us have no choice. As the church, we must embrace and love through anything— loss, parenting difficulties, addictions, everything—including mental illness. The fact that we may not understand this matter does not excuse us; we can learn.
How can we begin to break the stigma? First, be careful what we say. She is not schizophrenic. He is not bipolar. We do not refer to a person as heart disease or cancer. People live with or suffer from cancer or a bipolar disorder. Second, recognize our identity is in Jesus, not our body’s state of unhealth. Third, leave behind the commonly cruel caricatures of a person with mental illness. And the jokes… the other day I heard someone say, He’s so bipolar! Probably not. It was meant to make fun of how a person had been acting. Stigma is sustained by stereotype, prejudice, and fear, which are difficult to shed. Lack of understanding is easier to remedy.
Let us be a church that accepts one another’s weaknesses and illnesses regardless of what they may be. Even though mental illness is complex and difficult, we can be kind, come around one another, and learn as we go. If you would like to know more about mental illness and how you can care for someone, or be cared for, I recommend starting with this book. It is an excellent resource.