How might bipolar disorder affect church participation and spiritual development?


When I sat down to write this post, I went through my caseload and came to the realization that out of my families with a child actively being treated for bipolar disorder, ONE is regularly participating in the worship and ministry of a local church. It’s more likely in our practice that a family of a child with an autism spectrum disorder will be involved with church than a family of a child with bipolar disorder.

The first challenge in considering the spiritual development of kids with bipolar disorder and their families is overcoming the isolation they experience from Christians and the local church. In many cases, kids with bipolar disorder are the ones parents get concerned about when they start spending time with their child. They don’t have friends inviting them to Vacation Bible School. By Sunday morning, the parents are often so fatigued from the stress and demands of the week, the notion of getting up early to get the kids ready for church, putting up with the inevitable fight when Mom insists that Junior turn off the Nintendo to get ready and listening to the anger and hostility that occurs during the car ride is too overwhelming. Assuming they knew of a church where their family would be welcome. Assuming the parent isn’t carrying memories of negative church experiences from growing up with bipolar disorder, or having a parent or sibling with bipolar disorder. Assuming that the parents have some spiritual awareness or sense that a church might have something to offer.

Gary Sweeten is a counselor in Cincinnati conducting research into the needs of families with disabled children. The following is an excerpt from comments he posted on the Key Ministry Facebook page:

The desire for spiritual support grows dramatically for parents with special needs’ kids and the availability of such assistance is dramatically reduced. But!!!! The church must often go TO the parents not expect the parents to come TO the church.

shutterstock_380312989Because of the cyclical nature of their difficulties with mood, attention and capacity for self-control, kids with bipolar disorder may have a much more difficult time maintaining a consistent practice of spiritual disciplines, compared even to a peer with ADHD. During more acute cycles, they may have a much harder time remembering Bible verses they’ve memorized, sustaining the concentration to pray, or maintaining the self-awareness to know when they need God’s help or support from Christian friends. Their inability to maintain a train of thought may make meditation or reflection on Scripture impossible. They may be more prone to distort or misinterpret teaching during mood episodes. They may have a harder time than their peers finding a church or a youth group willing to accept them. If the child or teenager is involved in a small group their participation in the group is likely to be more inconsistent. Because of the actions they engage in or the anxiety they experience associated with their mood disorder, they may be more prone to question the authenticity of their salvation or have others in the church question the depth of their faith.

Preparing for special events (mission trips, ministry retreats) that may be catalysts to spiritual growth is difficult when the teen or their family has no way of knowing whether their mood will be stable enough to participate. Many kids with bipolar disorder will have complicated medication regimens (the average number of psychotropic medications taken by a child or teen with bipolar disorder is 3.4, and some medication must be taken more than once a day) that may preclude overnight retreats or trips. Because of confidentiality concerns, parents may not want church volunteers to know about the full extent of their child’s daily medication.

Kids with bipolar disorder may miss out on opportunities to serve others through church. Leaders may express concern that they can’t be depended upon to follow through on commitments.

The bottom line is that a group of kids who have a critically acute need for parents equipped to be their primary faith trainers are among the least likely to have a connection with a church prepared to equip and resource their parent(s) for the task.

Updated February 24, 2016

About Dr. G

Dr. Stephen Grcevich serves as President and Founder of Key Ministry, a non-profit organization providing free training, consultation, resources and support to help churches serve families of children with disabilities. Dr. Grcevich is a graduate of Northeastern Ohio Medical University (NEOMED), trained in General Psychiatry at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation and in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at University Hospitals of Cleveland/Case Western Reserve University. He is a faculty member in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at two medical schools, leads a group practice in suburban Cleveland (Family Center by the Falls), and continues to be involved in research evaluating the safety and effectiveness of medications prescribed to children for ADHD, anxiety and depression. He is a past recipient of the Exemplary Psychiatrist Award from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Dr. Grcevich was recently recognized by Sharecare as one of the top ten online influencers in children’s mental health. His blog for Key Ministry, was ranked fourth among the top 100 children's ministry blogs in 2015 by Ministry to Children.
This entry was posted in Bipolar Disorder, Families, Hidden Disabilities, Key Ministry, Mental Health, Spiritual Development and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to How might bipolar disorder affect church participation and spiritual development?

  1. Gary Sweeten says:

    I am looking forward to you post on “What churches can do to assist Special People”. It is a huge challenge but I think God is up to the challenge is w seek His direction.


  2. Pingback: Mental Disorders 101

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