Some of our readers have picked up on my recent frustration in discussing topics related to mental illness and church. Since this is Mental Illness Awareness Week, it seems an appropriate time to espouse on the topic.
In our very first post on this blog, I discussed the chasm that exists separating many of the families I serve in my workplace as a child and adolescent psychiatrist and the people who compose the social network my family experiences through our involvement at church.
Once my church friends get a handle on the families in their communities who come to practices like mine, we can problem-solve together how to welcome them into our environments and include them in the stuff we do so they can come to know Jesus, accept him as Lord, and grow to be more like him. Just like we do.
Together, God will help us figure out how we as church can welcome and include families of kids with real, but invisible disabilities.
I’m not necessarily the most patient person when I see something that needs to change. Progress has been slow. I’ve wondered what we need to do to get folks in the church to notice the resources offered by Key Ministry. I probably came down way too hard on Focus on the Family and Lifeway here and here over their surveys looking at mental illness and the church. The truth be told, I think the Lord was giving me a little taste of what it feels like to be left out of something at church I wanted to be part of. Not at all dissimilar to the experience of the families served by the churches we support.
One thing the guys at FOTF and Lifeway did well in their executive summary of their surveys was include comments and observations from a panel of experts in the church on mental illness in adults. A number of their comments provide excellent insights into the challenges facing the church in addressing these issues. I’ll share some of them here..
- People with mental illness or their families deal with a large amount of social shame and stigma around the illnesses.
- Conversations about mental illness need to change in frequency and tone.
- Labeling a mental illness as only a “spiritual issue” is not helpful and can be detrimental.
- Strong faith does not make a mental illness go away. People who deal with mental illness tend to be more honest about their relationship with God.
I’m not sure I agreed with what the folks on the panel had to say about kids and families. I sensed that the space needing to be bridged separating the church from the kids and families we serve was more like a chasm, especially when the folks who church leaders rely upon for education didn’t seem to know the questions that needed to be asked. The experts seemed a lot less hopeful than I am about kids overcoming the conditions for which their families seek treatment. In any event, here’s what I would’ve said had I been invited to participate on behalf of Key Ministry…
- Including kids with mental illness at church is incredibly important, given the evidence that suggests most people who come to faith in Christ do so before they reach adulthood.
- While the church is appropriately becoming concerned about adults with mental illness leaving church through the “back door,” very few pastors or ministry leaders appreciate the size and scope of the mission field awaiting outside their “front door” composed of families impacted by mental illness who have little or no experience of church.
- Parents of kids with mental health conditions are especially prone to be stigmatized at church because of the lingering belief among many in the Christian community that mental illness is a byproduct of sin, kids who struggle with managing emotions and maintaining self-control are the product of parents who are ineffective or indifferent and much of the mental health profession can’t be trusted.
- The conditions that produce the greatest obstacle to church participation and spiritual growth for the greatest number of families impacted by mental illness are anxiety disorders.
- Because the “apple often doesn’t fall far from the tree,” a family-based ministry approach will likely be required for the majority of kids and teens with mental illness to be assimilated into the church.
Here are three resources I’d suggest for Mental Illness Awareness Week…
Our friends at SNAPPIN’ Ministries have put together a Facebook event site for Mental Illness Awareness Week. I’d encourage you to check it out.
An excellent place to go for information about mental illness in kids and teens are the resource centers developed by the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.
Kay Warren and the crew at Saddleback Church are hosting 24 Hours of Hope beginning at 3:00 AM Eastern time on Friday, October 10th.
If you need more resources, you might find a few useful links from Key Ministry under “Past Blog Series” in the sidebar of this page.
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!
Dr. Steve, It took me until about six months ago to find your site, and I couldn’t have been more thrilled. Your resource provision is critically important, and your informed voice a literal God-send. I appreciate this “confession” of impatience because the voices addressing the topic of hidden disabilities and the church’s response are so few and far between, that I cringed at your weighty criticism leveled against the recent survey done by Focus. We need to be offering each other grace, and accolades for even being willing to enter the dialogue as FOTF has now done, albeit flawed. Few in the religion mountain enter with your level of admirable expertise! And I for one want to go on the record celebrating FOTF’s foray into the field that compels you to write. We may be able to ditch the report as being “unscientific” as you so aptly portrayed, but at least questions are being asked, even if the wrong ones. God forbid we wait to ask questions until we can get it 100% right! I too, wish they had conferred with you, but alas, moving on, we all stand in gratitude over intentions and every ounce of positive outcome from their efforts, as well as from yours. Keep up the good work!
Thanks for your comments. As you said, I was a little hard on those guys. But one of the struggles I’ve observed in church world is that there are lots of folks with gifts and talents to contribute to movements like this one who don’t get tapped for projects like this or can’t get themselves noticed…and that’s very different than the medical world I operate in during the day. For example, there’s a research group at Baylor that has been doing good work (with little fanfare) on this topic of mental illness in the church, and a group at Vanderbilt that has a very nice methodology for doing studies of families impacted by disability and the supports they find most beneficial. In the medical world, guys from different hospitals would actively seek one another out to collaborate on big projects and good work done by newcomers gets noticed.
Part of why we do our Inclusion Fusion Web Summit (coming up next month) is to help people with really good ideas get networked and noticed. Things are changing…maybe not fast enough for my liking.
Please comment again when you see the need!
Thank you for your reply! As a newcomer myself, not to the world of hidden disabilities, but to the art of speaking to the world about hidden disabilities, I am pleased to hear that there is room for new voices! As a parent of two with neuropsychiatric disorders, I felt it was time to speak to other parents, especially to those grappling with medication choices and acceptance of labeling. I also address the church’s response to hidden disabilities, including mental illness. I was well into this project when I found your excellent site, and felt affirmed that I was covering the right topics as I noticed you have hit some of the same concerns from your scholarly perspective in past posts. If interested, you can listen to part 1 of my interview with The Need Project: http://www.needproject.org/index.php/podcasts-2/315-toppling-the-idol-of-ideal-with-melanie-boudreau