Look around you in the pews at church. Chances are good that you are standing near someone with mental illness — or perhaps that someone is you.
The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that one in five adults in the United States is living with a mental illness — nearly 58 million men and women in every state in the nation. The World Health Organization estimates 970 million people around the world are living with a mental disorder.
The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the problem, particularly in young people. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey revealed a third of American high schoolers reported poor mental health during the pandemic, much of it because of pandemic-related shutdowns and isolation.
Suicide is the eleventh leading cause of death in the United States, with 1.7 million suicide attempts in 2021, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
Most suicides are related to psychiatric disease, with depression, substance use disorders, and psychosis being the highest risk factors.
Jesus said our first commandment is to love God with all our hearts, minds, and souls, but second to love our neighbor as our ourselves (Matthew 22:36-40).
Part of loving our neighbor is caring for them in their pain and doing what we can to alleviate the problem.
With so many people living with mental illness, it is crucial that the church understand a number of key things about mental illness.
Here then, are 18 things the church should know about mental illness.
1. It’s a Disorder
Mental illness can be any mental, behavioral, or emotional disorder. Some people are officially diagnosed with a disorder, while others are not. Some experience no impairment, while others experience mild, moderate, and even severe impairment.
2. It Can Interfere with Someone’s Life
Some people have a mental illness so severe that it causes serious functional impairment, which substantially interferes with major life activities, such as distress or problems functioning in social, work, or family activities.
3. From OCD to PTSD and More
Mental illness can range from anxiety to schizophrenia, and some people mask their illness so well no one has a clue they suffer in silence.
Illnesses include post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, anxiety, eating disorders, suicide, addiction, and more. There is not one type of mental illness, and symptoms vary.
4. A Diagnosis Helps
Treatments for mental illness vary by diagnosis and by person. Getting a diagnosis is an important first step. Sometimes, people have a few disorders, which can complicate the diagnosis.
5. Treatment Varies
Treatment for mental illness can cover a range of options. Some see a mental health counselor, such as a therapist. Some see a psychiatrist.
Others cope through support groups or informal circles of encouragement. Some take medicine, while others rely on holistic medicine, diet, and exercise. Some do all of this, and some do none.
6. People with Mental Illness Are Not Crazy
Nor are they a “lost cause” or broken beyond repair. Mental illness is much like physical illness — only with mental illness, it’s a problem in the brain. And it’s not someone’s fault.
7. Staying Quiet Makes it Worse
Staying quiet about mental illness doesn’t help the problem — it makes it worse. It’s okay to talk about suicide, depression, and other issues.
It doesn’t plant the idea in their mind but rather lets them know you care about them and care enough to have an uncomfortable conversation.
8. People Can’t Just ‘Get Over It’
When it comes to mental illness, it’s not a perspective shift or a mind game. You can’t “fake it ‘til you make it.”
Among kids aged 10-14, suicide is the second leading cause of death, yet many of them say adults in their lives often ask them, “What do you have to be depressed about? You’re just a kid.” It’s valid and very real.
9. Loving People with Mental Illness Is a Way to Love Jesus
In Matthew 25:40, Jesus said, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” He said when we welcome a stranger, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, or visit those in prison, we’re actually doing that for him.
So, when we love someone with mental illness, when we welcome them or care for them or urge them to share their story, it’s yet another way of loving the Lord and caring for “the least of these.”
10. Lots of Bible Heroes Battled Depression
Moses, Job, King David, Elijah, Jonah, and many, many others throughout Scripture struggled with bouts of intense depression. Yet God used them. God can use people with depression and other mental illnesses today, too.
11. Prayer Helps
Prayer really does help people fighting mental illness. Often, people with mental illness can feel like they are fighting an invisible battle. Prayer is an added layer of armor in that battle.
12. The Church Can Help
Churches can play an excellent role in the mental health of their communities. Pastors and others, such as Stephen Ministers, can offer counseling or a supportive ear. Churches can host support groups or foster small groups or Bible studies.
13. Body Care Can Help with Mental Health
Proper nutrition and exercise can be a huge help for people with mental illness. Exercise particularly releases feel-good endorphins and other natural brain chemicals that powerfully combat the effects of depression.
Churches can encourage this with exercise groups, nutrition education, and other creative and fun ways.
14. You’re Not Alone
One of the biggest ways churches can support people with mental illness is by reminding them and others they are not alone. Satan likes to isolate his victims and make them feel they are powerless. But together, with the Lord at our helm, we are mighty and can conquer our enemy.
The church can and should speak about mental illness and educate people about it. We can help remove the stigma or shame. The church can and should preach about this. Talk openly about this. Host seminars and workshops. Speak up.
15. Professional Expertise
Sometimes, pastoral counseling is not enough. Churches should be comfortable referring people with mental illness to psychiatrists, psychologists, and other therapists for outside counseling, particularly if there are few trained counselors on-staff at the church.
16. Being Christian Doesn’t Make Us Immune to Mental Illness
Nor does mental illness indicate we are weak, “bad,” or faithless Christians. Mental illnesses are often genetically inherited diseases. People with great faith live with everything from anxiety to schizophrenia.
17. Taking Medicine Isn’t a Bad Thing
Many Christians feel like they aren’t “allowed” to take medicine for mental illness because prayer should heal them.
Yet these same Christians think it’s perfectly fine for someone with cancer to take chemotherapy or for someone with diabetes to take insulin. Medicine is a personal choice, and it isn’t wrong to take it if it helps.
18. The Church Is on the Front Lines
Many people come to church for answers. It’s up to church members and church staff to understand and be able to serve as a sort of triage for people with mental illness — to recognize mental illness symptoms and be able to steer someone to appropriate help if needed.
People with mental illness — just like people with physical illness — are beloved creations of the Lord, each created in the image of God. We have an obligation to love each other and care for each other.
Fostering a culture of compassion in your church is a wonderful way to help people with mental illness while fulfilling Jesus’s commandment to care.
Let’s all pray about new and different ways we, God’s church, can serve and grow together as we battle mental illness.
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Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/martin-dm
Jessica Brodie is an award-winning Christian novelist, journalist, editor, blogger, and writing coach and the recipient of the 2018 American Christian Fiction Writers Genesis Award for her novel, The Memory Garden. She is also the editor of the South Carolina United Methodist Advocate, the oldest newspaper in Methodism. Learn more about her fiction and read her faith blog at jessicabrodie.com. She has a weekly YouTube devotional, too. You can also connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, and more. She’s also produced a free eBook, A God-Centered Life: 10 Faith-Based Practices When You’re Feeling Anxious, Grumpy, or Stressed.