5 Ways to Respond to Mental Illness in the Church
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Mental illness can be difficult to recognize physically. It tends to lay hidden beneath the surface. Many people are ashamed to admit they struggle with a mental illness, and some may not even know they have one.
This can be particularly painful and poignant for people in a church where mental health issues are not readily addressed or prayed for in public worship—especially so when all one sees in the congregation are polished and beautiful people with their smiling faces and seemingly perfect lives. How easy it is to forget that there is a broken heart in every person and in every pew, and that “together-looking” people may just be putting on their Sunday best.
Most people believe that mental health issues are rare, but in fact, according to Mental Health America (MHA), they are quite common, with “over 54 million Americans suffering from some form of a mental disorder within a given year” and “more than 200 classified forms of mental illness.” Along with each of these forms comes a wide range of severity as well.
Whether it be mild depression, anxiety, phobia, mental breakdown, or even severe cases like manic/depression or schizophrenia, what can a church do? What encouragement can we find in Scripture and the church if we are suffering from a mental illness?
The church should not allow those who suffer from mental issues to feel like they are alone. By speaking about it as a church and having a heart of openness to this common issue, the church can do much to remove the stigma of mental illness. People who suffer can then be more open to speak about it themselves and seek help if needed.
2. Provide Counseling
Strong, biblically-rooted, professionally-trained counselors are invaluable to a flock. They can guide people through difficult times, answer questions, talk through issues, reconcile, and help people heal. Christians are called to love, serve, and comfort our brothers and sisters, caring for the weakest and most troubled saints (Rom. 12:15; 2 Cor. 13:11; Gal. 5:13). Whether it is provided by the pastor, elders, or staff members, counseling is a needed resource every church needs to make available to its congregants (cf. Prov. 27:9; Rom. 12:15).
3. Encourage People to Seek Professional Help
Just as people don’t go to their pastor/church to heal them from a broken leg, they should not expect their pastor/church to be able to heal their mental illness. In his common grace, God provides a wide range of medical professionals in many parts of the world to heal people from their physical and mental health issues. The church should encourage people who are struggling with mental illness to seek professional help if it is available.
God is the great Physician. A church that publicly prays for the healing of mental illness and comfort for those who suffer gives one of the most important aides it can. This also encourages the congregation to speak openly and pray privately in their own homes and personal prayers. We should never underestimate the power of prayer.
5. Read Scripture
Be encouraged that those dealing with mental illness are not alone. Many Christians of the past have struggled with mental illness as well. Scripture has more to say about mental health than we might realize. The Psalms alone offer a wealth of insight regarding how people like King David dealt with depression and anxiety (e.g. Psalm 42, 88, 142).
David consistently goes back to God with his worries and troubles. He speaks openly about them and writes them down as he prays to God. Isaiah 41:10, John 14:27, Philippians 4:6-7, and 1 Peter 5:7 all talk about anxiety, fear, or feeling troubled in our hearts and the need to cast our cares on God, taking them to him in prayer.
These Bible verses also show us that Jesus was very concerned about mental health and that saints throughout history have dealt with mental heath issues. While these passages may not directly address more severe mental health issues, they still give us ample evidence that God cares about our mental health.
Offering and Seeking Help
Whatever we may be struggling with in life and however severe it may be, we are not alone. We have a God who cares, heals, and comforts. We should encourage our churches to provide whatever help they can with their available resources for those suffering with mental illness. It is important to be open with, pray with, and encourage our brothers and sisters in Christ who struggle with this health issue.
Please, seek help. Remember, God does not promise us freedom from suffering, but to be there with us in the midst of our sufferings—and to work all things out for the good of our salvation (Rom. 8:28). Most importantly, we have a Savior to whom we can turn who knows fully what it means to go through severe mental anguish as he prepared for death. Because of Christ’s death and resurrection, believers have the sure promise of an eternity with him, free from every illness forever.
Matt Mullininx holds a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Westminster Seminary California.