Faith

Does the Church Support those Suffering with Mental Illness?

By: Amy Cheng

Warning: This article contains themes that some readers may find distressing. If you or someone you love needs help, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

When Tessie Lau was suffering from depression a few years ago, she was a leader in her church and serving in upfront ministries, however, her struggles were unknown to many.

“I tried to hide this from people, most people wouldn’t have guessed that I was going through issues because I was a leader at church in upfront ministry but, in the background, I was struggling a lot,” she said.

“I felt really guilty as a Christian; if I’m leading music, leading Bible study, then I shouldn’t be depressed and maybe I was a fake.”

John Cranfield suffers from a mental health condition called schizoaffective disorder and finds it very hard to come to church.

“It’s very overwhelming… I’ll go to church and I’ll cry, I don’t like love,” he said.

He believes his difficulty in accepting love comes from his inability to trust others.

“You get a bit paranoid, and you worry about what people think of you, and you worry if you’ll fit in and that you’re not good enough.”

Improving Wellbeing

Although Ms Lau and Mr Cranfield did not get the support they wanted, the church can be a good place to ward off mental health problems, according to Andy Moore, General Manager Health, Conferences and Education with Wesley Community Services including responsibility for Wesley Lifeforce Suicide Prevention Services, and a Lifeline Board Director.

“Church community helps people with their mental health just by being who they are.”

He believes there are two factors in addressing mental health issues – risk factors, which is looking out for people vulnerable to poor mental health due to circumstances, and protective factors, such as taking action to strengthen immunity against poor mental health.

“One of the things that is a protective factor is being connected with a community, and so churches, just by being churches, offer a protective factor,” he said.

“They offer somewhere where people can come and connect with other people… that actual church community helps people with their mental health just by being who they are.”

Mental Health Affecting Daily LifeWoman with Mental Health Matters tshirt

Jenny Brown, a Christian counsellor training to be a psychotherapist, said a mental health issue becomes a problem when it affects daily living.

“Mental health issues, which could also be known as disorders or illnesses, can affect someone’s thinking and their emotion, their behaviour and their overall wellbeing,” she said.

“If they even just think, ‘oh gee, this doesn’t seem quite right’, or it’s not what it used to be… it might be a small change… but that might be time to think about doing something (about it).”

For anyone uncertain if there is a problem, Ms Brown suggests they seek professional help.

“They will want to seek medical help in case it is a medical condition; their thinking might have changed, they might notice some physical symptoms in their body,” she said.

“I can speak from my own perspective – my mum should have gone for help a lot earlier, she had Parkinson’s disease, so delaying treatment really worsened the symptoms and the outcome.”

The Church’s Intention to Mental Health

Counsellor Kim Morris believes the church has “open arms” in caring for those with mental health struggles.

“We certainly have open arms and I don’t think we’re afraid of mental health anymore; I think as a society that’s true as well,” she said.

As for caring for those inside the church, there’s always more to do but she believes the church is doing its best.

“We can’t leave someone at risk because we are fearful of referring; we have to be able to refer on.”

“I think most often we are doing our best; we have an intention to want to love people; we might fail because of resources sometimes but I think our intent is right and we try very hard to get it right.”

However, she believes it’s important for ministers to know when to refer people on to professionals, such as psychologists or counsellors.

“We have to be very careful that we don’t take on more responsibility than is in our individual skill set,” Ms Morris said.

“We can’t leave someone at risk because we are fearful of referring; we have to be able to refer on.”

After referring, it is important to check in, she said.

“We still have the responsibility to spiritually care for people… when they’re standing right in the mud of something really awful, we stand with them and we don’t leave them and don’t just pass them on and wipe our hands off it; we still love them through that.”

To decide when to refer on, Ms Morris follows a model she learnt from another professional.

“If a pastor has spoken to someone three times about the same thing and the person is still quite stuck and not making much progress, that’s a good point to think ‘maybe we need someone else here’.”

This model is more for people in pastoral care, however, for others in the church, Ms Morris suggested they refer them to the pastor.

Strengthening our Brothers and Sisters

Ms Lau was hospitalised when she had a relapse of her depression; after being discharged from hospital, she began reading John Piper’s When the Darkness Will Not Lift.

At the time, she was looking after a newborn, managing her depressive symptoms and felt isolated.

“I was saying to (God) I don’t have any support, I feel really alone, there’s nothing at church, and He said ‘why don’t you start something?’.”

She was particularly struck by the passage in Piper’s book calling people to strengthen their brothers and sisters, however, she did not feel able to do that.

“I said to God, ‘I’m not even better yet, I haven’t even slept, so how can I strengthen (others)?’ And God said, ‘you start the ministry and I will bring the people’.

“When a soldier is down, you want to finish this race together so that nobody gets left behind.”

“I thought that was such a crazy idea, I’m like half dead on the couch, reading this book, haven’t had any sleep, I’m obviously not very well.”

However, Ms Lau persisted and started up Lighthouse in 2013 – a Christian peer support group for those struggling with mental health.

Ms Lau sees Lighthouse as a way to train up a Christian army.

“When a soldier is down, you want to finish this race together so that nobody gets left behind,” she said.

“I see legions of people being left behind in the church because they’re hurt and it’s hard for them to finish the race.

“I think there are a lot of people on this battlefield who want to go on mission for God… but we have very weak Christian soldiers who are on the battlefield that’ve just put band aids on a lot of their past hurts and traumas and band aids on their mental health.”

Changing the Language

Mr Moore believes the church is doing well but sees areas for improvement, particularly in the language being used.

As someone with qualifications in suicidology, the scientific study of suicidal behaviour, he believes language can sometimes be a barrier.

“One of the big pushes we have for suicide prevention is that we don’t use the word ‘commit’ (because) commit means it is a crime,” Mr Moore said.

“The language we then use in a church is what people hear and that gives our church people permission about how they can talk about it in their own lives.

“If there’s stigma and shame around mental health, they’re not going to talk to the church or us if they’re struggling because they’ll think we’re going to judge them.”

Ms Lau has experienced this firsthand; although she knows people have good intentions, she was hurt by text messages she received when she was unwell.

“I think give them permission to feel and just ask what they’re going through; make it human, not just a human transaction.”

“When I was going through relapses, I wasn’t able to attend church and Bible study and people would just message me and say, ‘I’ve been discouraged that you haven’t been going to church, you need to read your Bible more and then you’ll feel better’ – it wasn’t very helpful.

“The most unhelpful thing was (when) I was in the hospital… people know that you’re sick but they don’t know what to say.

“So, they’ll just send you a short message with a Bible verse and that they’re praying for you… and they wash their hands and then they move on to someone else.

“To me, it means they don’t really want to help, they don’t really want to invest in you, they just want to do the right thing.

“I think give them permission to feel and just ask what they’re going through; make it human, not just a human transaction.”

Churches Working Together

Another change Mr Moore would like to see is more collaboration between churches.

“A lot of people with mental health challenges isolate themselves as a result of their illness, so that means we have to work extra hard to go to them and not to expect that they’ll come to us,” he said.

This can be done through shared events, either between churches or parachurches (Christian organisations working outside the church) in the community.

“The church … the idea that we all come together once every week or two creates this giant protective factor for vulnerable people in the community.

“I don’t think we accept that enough, I think often we’re talking about worship and faith and we downplay our role.

“But there’s evidence that suggests when there’s a good functioning community network that mental health and suicide both decrease by big percentages.”


Article supplied with thanks to Hope Media.

Feature image: Photo by Fernando @cferdophotography on Unsplash 

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