In the seventh segment in our series…Ten Things I Wish Church Leaders Knew About Families and Mental Illness, we’ll look at one characteristic of kids with mental health concerns that’s especially difficult for many leaders to conceptualize…kids may be disabled in some environments, but not others.
For purposes of nondiscrimination laws (e.g. the Americans with Disabilities Act, Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Section 188 of the Workforce Investment Act), a person with a disability is generally defined as someone who (1) has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more “major life activities,” (2) has a record of such an impairment, or (3) is regarded as having such an impairment.
U.S. Department of Labor
When most of us ponder the concept of disability, the first image that pops into our minds are children or adults with significant physical limitations that result in difficulties functioning 24/7/365. People who need the preferential parking spaces near the door of the grocery store or medical clinic. Kids with cerebral palsy who require a chair lift when transported to school or church. An adult in need of a walker following a stroke. Kids with Down Syndrome or some condition in which observable markers of a disabling condition are readily apparent.
Consider “church world” for a moment…Joni Earickson Tada has probably been the most visible (and impactful) champion for inclusion of persons with disability in the modern church. She’s extraordinarily talented as an artist, an author and as a musician. When we think of Joni, our mental image is of her physical limitations…a woman with a paint brush in her mouth, seated in a wheelchair with quadriplegia from a diving accident as a teenager.
One of the greatest challenges to the church in conceptualizing disability in kids, teens or adults with mental illness is the reality that the functional impairment associated with the disability is not easily observed. Symptoms may ebb and flow over time…say, a child or an adult with a major mood disorder. Many kids and adults experience mental health conditions that substantially limits their ability to participate in church as a major life activity while maintaining reasonably high levels of functioning at school, at work or at home. Most will never qualify for financial benefits or government recognition of a disabling condition…but their inability to actively participate in communal spiritual activities as part of a local church as a result of mental illness, based upon the Federal definition, qualifies them as having a disability.
Let me walk through a series of examples of how specific mental illnesses can interfere with the ability to attend church in kids or adults who otherwise function at a reasonably high level at work or school…
- A bright, teen boy with Asperger’s Disorder may have very high grades in school and do very well as a member of his school’s Science Olympiad team, but fights his parents over attending church or youth group because of intense discomfort socializing with unfamiliar kids or adults.
- A seventh grader who is forced to drop out of Catholic school as a result of incapacitating panic attacks that occur only when seated in a crowded sanctuary with 500 other kids during the mandatory Mass on holy days of obligation or prior to special events.
- A girl in elementary school with separation anxiety who has a meltdown in the parking lot when she learns the pastor of the church her family is visiting doesn’t permit children of her age to stay with their parents in the worship center.
- A family is asked to leave their church when their five year old adopted son with ADHD and fetal alcohol exposure punches the son of the elder board’s chairman.
- The pastor’s son with auditory processing/sensory processing difficulties unable to attend children’s church because of the volume of the music.
- The boy with dyslexia who refused to leave the house for church after being put on the spot by his Sunday School teacher to read from the Bible in front of 15-20 other kids.
- The twelve year old girl with social anxiety who refused to go to church without a friend after the middle school pastor pointed out that she was sitting alone from the stage during worship. She was volunteering in the nursery and running late because a parent at an earlier service was late in picking up their child.
Every one of the situations described above occurred to either the child of someone I know, or came up in the course of treating a kid in our practice. I could list many others…the elite student sent home from a mission trip as a result of anxiety, the families seeking to put together a virtual small group because of the lack of available child care for kids with autism…the list goes on and on.
Churches appropriately invest church money in building wheelchair ramps, accessible restroom facilities and elevators or persons with physical disabilities. When will we demonstrate the same intentionality in making our churches accessible to the largest segment of our population impacted by disabilities…children, teens and adults with mental illness?
Key Ministry has assembled resources to help churches more effectively minister to children and adults with ADHD, anxiety disorders, Asperger’s Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, depression and trauma. Please share our resources with any pastors, church staff, volunteers or families looking to learn more about the influence these conditions can exert upon spiritual development in kids, and what churches can do to help!