Church and Serious Mental Illness: A Better Expectation

PREface

Welcome to the Journal. Our intention is to write short, yet informative, pieces about serious mental illness that will educate and inspire compassion. We know that there are numerous websites you can visit for general information about illnesses like Schizophrenia, for example. Instead of a generic list of symptoms, we're going to share about the real life situations behind the labels and diagnosis. Names and circumstances may be slightly altered, but we believe there are some exceptional individuals you should meet. People who live right in your own backyard (so to speak). So sit back, grab a cup of coffee and spend a few brief moments with our Journal.

Admitting our weakness

As I wrote last week, I am definitely not here to bash the faith community. But a mere request for real life stories from families who have loved ones with a serious mental illness in relation to their faith groups brought a multitude of sobering cases. So much so, that I would be disingenuous in any decision not to share.

To be sure, there are certainly good examples out there. Our own church experience is a case in point. Look for these stories and more in future Journal posts. But for now, I want to share stories like the one below. We cannot offer the solutions until we first admit the need. So let's pause for a moment and just listen. Let's open our hearts to the people who are very likely suffering in silence right next to you on any given Sunday morning:

 

Jacque's story

Our daughter's birth was anticipated by many friends. We received food, visits, and gifts after she was born. Our church members agreed to love and to nurture her as she grew.

At the age of 16 she was being shunned because she had her first hospitalization for an eating disorder. She was down to two friends at that time that asked about her and I had maybe a handful of friends. By age 19 she developed psychosis and had psychiatric hospitalizations that continue to this day. Now, she and I only have one friend each from that church who check on her.

If we received compassion I would be so grateful, but I expect nothing anymore.”

We attended a bridal shower recently for her one friend. All of her huge group of friends from youth excluded her and sat together. She is not invited to weddings, gatherings etc. of those kids. The moms never ever mention her or ask about her anymore. It has been no different than the cold cruel world.

We have been attending a small church for the past 6 months. Two weeks ago, we had an admission at the ER with our SMI (Seriously Mentally Ill) daughter that required a surgery. The surgery was a result of using dirty needles and having abscesses in her arms. I have been sick myself for one month and have missed the last 3 or 4 Sundays. We have received zero contact from our Sunday school or from our pastor. I am just at the point where I will never ever expect anything from an organized church. If we received compassion I would be so grateful, but I expect nothing anymore.

 

Called to be different

Churches are not called to be experts about serious mental illness or to provide medical care and treatment. At the same time we know that a person is not disqualified from being a valuable member of our church community simply because they have a significant mental health issue. What keeps us from moving toward those with more difficult challenges in our faith groups? 

In an attempt to begin to answer the question above I'll start with something I'm very familiar with, my own heart. There are certainly a multitude of barriers we could discuss but I am sharing the first two that jumped into my head:

1. Judgement. Before our own son became ill, I had categories in my own mind about people with serious mental illness. I wrongly believed that all people who had Schizophrenia, for example, were either possessed by demons or came to be that way through illicit drug use. Sadly, I had to be touched directly through a family member's suffering to learn otherwise.

Don't be like me, be willing to learn.

2.  Fear. There is no shortage of television shows and movies depicting people with psychotic brain illnesses as criminals. Asylums, once the only place of refuge for people who suffered with SMI, have become the fodder for horror stories, video games, and haunted houses every Halloween. 

Almost weekly we read headlines about the latest tragedy involving someone who has a serious mental illness. Many groups deny any correlation of violence in an attempt to end the stigma, with good intentions. However, the uncomfortable truth is that many of these tragedies occur due to lack of treatment, services, and education, especially for those with a lack of insight (anosognosia) and their families.

Mental illness is more normal than you think. What's not normal is our broken system of care, support and treatment.

Stepping out of the shadows will only help move us toward the light with confidence, hope, and compassion. And who better than the church to move toward people with more significant needs, the vulnerable living right in our communities and attending our churches? Who better to speak up on behalf of those more likely to be at risk for incarceration, homelessness, or shunning by our communities? 

It's time for a better expectation, better than "nothing" as Jacque says, on behalf of many families suffering in silence.

As a member of the East Valley Behavioral Health Coalition, I've had the privilege of helping to plan the upcoming event in Gilbert, AZ  on Saturday, April 22 called, "Accessing Adult Behavioral Health Services in Arizona." Knowing the on-ramps to services is a good place to begin. For more information and to RSVP, please see the Eventbrite invitation here. There will be resource tables available at this event, we will be one of them. Please stop by and say hello.

Look for our upcoming Crisis Care Team training for faith groups in the Fall of 2017. P82 Project Restoration is a Gospel centered, Christian led organization. However, the Crisis Care Team training is geared for any faith group and we do not discriminate. It is our desire to serve faith groups in learning how to come along side of individuals and families at risk, including educating leaders about critical resources beyond their "lane" of expertise.  Please contact us if you would like more information.

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