At the moment, the church has been an abject, spectacular failure for people with mental illnesses. Talking to just a few people with mental illness who have been encouraged to seek help in the church or through church institutions reveals the same issues over and over: told to pray away the depression/anxiety, told they aren’t good Christians, made to feel inferior, disallowed from leadership (how can a leader be depressed), or just a general lack of understanding of mental illness. A recent essay in Slate by Jennifer Miller offers just one example (and resonated with a great many current and former Christians on social media).
So, let me share four stories/incidents from throughout my life that point to the failure of the church to actually deal with mental illness. The first occurs when I am roughly 16 years old. At this point, I had suffered from severe depression for years but successfully hidden it from everyone I knew, although my parents did have inklings (and, in my next post, I’ll detail the failure of the medical community). But, I was a good kid, didn’t get into (much) trouble and got good grades, which could have been better if I didn’t spend time reading other things. However, I was depressed and had suicidal ideation (this is where you think of suicide, fixate on it, but don’t really have a plan to act on it, at least not a well-formed plan). So, one day I am hanging out with some friends and we are driving around town and spending time at the youth center our church had in town. Me and another guy are 16, one guy is 18, and the other two are the youth pastor and a leader. We are talking, nothing serious, and they are discussing the times they just want to pound their heads into the wall. And I say, “Yeah, sometimes I get so frustrated I just want to drive as fast as I can into a telephone pole.” They all stop, stop laughing, and just look at me. Then someone says, “No. No normal people want to do that. What is wrong with you?” This was a completely normal thought to me and I was shamed, instead of helped. No one told my parents, tried to get me help, or anything. In fact, we never discussed it again and I learned that you didn’t share those private, innermost thoughts with church people, especially pastors and leaders.
For college, I decided to go to an evangelical Christian, liberal arts school (in that order). I was a ministry major, meaning I was working toward being in a church after I graduated, although my path was always more academic (again, I read a lot more books outside of what I needed to and focused less on my actual schoolwork). During my sophomore year of school, I took a very heavy second semester. And in the midst of this semester I started to have some issues with my mental illness that were beyond my normal-everyday issues, i.e., depression and anxiety. I went to my professor teaching spiritual formation that semester, and who was famous on campus for helping students with their issues. I walked in and sat down and, having learned from previous experiences, said, “I’m just struggling. I’m sad and don’t know what to do about it.” We talked for literally 3 mins, then he gave me a long speech about how Christians can experience sadness, but if we stay in it then Satan is attacking us and we are letting the devil win. This led to him telling me I really needed to be praying and reading the Bible more. I also should be getting up early and taking morning prayer walks. He then said he’d see me in class. (I now know of at least two other people he did the same thing to and he continues to be employed in a high position within the university). So, again, the church does not engage at all or probe because it’s easier to simply say “pray.”
The third instance came when I was in the midst of my doctoral studies. My wife and I were living in our hometown and going to a large church (we still live here). The church had just built a new addition that had multiple entrances and the like, as well as private classrooms. And, our community at this time (and still) was dealing with a major meth problem. I went to the pastor and asked if we might be able to start a group or two that dealt with mental health issues and with helping the addicts in our community. I knew of at least two people in the church that could lead an NA group and we could deal with the mental illness in a peer-to-peer support way. I had a good plan (that was later funded at another church through two local grants). But the pastor looked at me and said, verbatim, “Nate, we don’t want those kinds of people here in our building.” He then inferred that the new building could get damaged if it was used too much or that the people might burn it down. Again, the church simply said that the mentally ill, including the addict, are not its problem.
The last example went on the last few years. I was on staff at a church. My mental state was all over the place, but no one in the church ever had an idea. And, at the time, we switched pastors and I was diagnosed with bipolar 2 disorder. So, after a few months, I went and talked to the new pastor about the fact that I had bipolar and that I would resign if it was an issue (even though according to the ADA I didn’t have to, technically). I really wanted to do what was best and easiest for everyone. He told me that I didn’t need to resign but that I couldn’t tell anyone about my mental illness because people might not understand or they may judge me. I accepted and went on doing my work. Through the next roughly four years, the pastor would use my bipolar against me at times when we were in private meetings. I was part-time and, more than once, he was upset that I was not doing “more.” (I worked part-time because I stayed home with the kids and I was still trying to be an academic). We went back and forth and other issues arose. Finally, I told him I was telling the congregation that I was bipolar in a sermon I was giving. He tried to talk me out of it but finally relented. The congregation embraced my story wholeheartedly (we’ll get back to this) and he was ok with it. But, finally, I told him that I was struggling and very depressed and that since I didn’t have any major responsibilities and I needed him to back off a little (this was partly because I was dealing with some issues with my two youngest kids and was running around a lot. I explained that I couldn’t do it all). His response was that he didn’t care what my issues were and that I used bipolar as an excuse and that I needed to get over it because he was overwhelmed and I needed to pick up his slack. This conversation was the beginning of the end of my time at the church, as I couldn’t work with someone like that anymore. During this time I also wrote the leaders of our denomination to inform them of this behavior toward someone with a mental illness and they blew me off (since churches don’t actually have to abide by the ADA for their workforce…which is sickening).
So, in the midst of this, why do I want to see Here/Hear in churches and work with churches. Well, because as a theologian, I recognize that the institutions are not the church and may not actually even be part of the Church in the end. And, I have felt the warmth and love of a congregation who cares about people, even if pastors don’t act in that way. Like I said, the congregation that I preached what I call the “bipolar” sermon (it was really about Peter and having secrets) to embraced and resonated. Also, a number of people came up to me afterward and spoke of their silent struggle with many forms of mental illness, from OCD to anxiety to schizophrenia to depression. These are in our churches and we are failing at dealing with them in any meaningful way, which tells these people that the church and God does not love them.
Also, I think it’s time for the church to repent of the spiritual abuse that it has subjected on the mentally ill. By making people feel like God doesn’t love them, like they are not really Christians, like they need to pray more, like they are not spiritual enough, etc., the church has destroyed people. The church now needs to offer a corrective and a way of turning and really embracing the mentally ill.
So, the Here/Hear proposal is to offer small groups of peer-to-peer support. This does not take the place of counseling or psychiatrist. It is a peer-to-peer where people can come and be totally honest. These groups must be open to people of all ages struggling with a mental illness, with an option for their caregivers to either attend or be in another support group (this would be up to the “mental illness” group because sometimes we don’t want to share in front of our caregivers).
The structure of the group would be as follows: first, go around and introduce ourselves. This is so if names are forgotten or their are new people, they don’t feel odd. Second, there is a time of meditation, or mindfulness. This is a practice that Christians (as well as other religions) have used for centuries to tune-in to God and to each other. It will be a designated amount of time and have an alarm to go with it. Third, we will use a bible verse to guide the time of sharing. This leads to the time of sharing, but it does not have to be centered on one idea. It can go wherever, offering people the chance to speak. When the time of sharing is over, ask for prayers. End with the prayer time with the Serendipity prayer. And then whole time together with a shorter time of meditation, sorting through our feelings and thoughts. At this point, it may even be good for participants to have pens and notepads, if appropriate.
I believe that the church and other religious institutions offer a place where people can feel safe, if they are made to feel safe. They are also gathering places that can offer space, but in a warmer environment. The church also has to reckon with the fact that there are mentally ill people in its midst and how it can begin to offer a path for them. The Here/Hear path is a way.