Mental Illness & The Church: An Interview with Amy Simpson


by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

Last month, I asked readers what topics you wanted to read more about on the blog, and one of the top responses was mental health and the Church. So I scheduled this interview with Amy Simpson days before the tragic death of Robin Williams revealed just how much we need to talk about this. Amy  is author of Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission and Anxious: Choosing Faith in a World of Worry. She also serves as editor of Gifted for Leadership, Senior Editor of Leadership Journal, a speaker, and a Co-Active personal and professional coach. You can find her at AmySimpsonOnline.com and on Twitter @aresimpson. Hope you learn as much from this interview as I did: 

 

Tell us a little about your mother and how her struggle with mental illness inspired you to write “Troubled Minds.” 

My mother had mental illness from the time she was a young adult, before I was born. But her illness was somewhat hidden and she was able to function well enough, with some challenges, until I was a teenager. She showed symptoms of a serious disorder, but they weren’t recognized for what they were. After a period of extraordinary stress for our family, her symptoms became much more pronounced. When I was 14, she began having serious psychotic breaks, losing touch with reality and losing the ability to function. After that, she was diagnosed with schizophrenia.

In the decades since then, Mom has spent time in hospitals, homeless shelters, jail, and prison. Her illness affected my family profoundly, but we didn’t talk much about what was happening with her at home. We didn’t feel it was OK to discuss mental illness with others, so we mostly kept quiet about it when we were away from home too. The church, like other places, was mostly silent on this issue and didn’t offer much of the kind of help we needed. We felt very isolated, as if we were the only ones going through the experience.

As I got older and pursued healing for my own wounds, I sought to understand my mom’s illness and how it affected me. I started learning about how common mental illness is—my family was far from alone in our experience. I read other people’s stories and realized how similar they were to ours. I began to understand that the church’s lack of engagement was affecting many more people than just my family. God began to nudge me toward writing on this topic as a ministry to others and a challenge and encouragement to the church.

Your father was a pastor for many years. What did your church do right in responding to your family’s situation, and what did your church do wrong? And what can we learn from that? 

My mom was affected by her illness while Dad was pastoring, but when she became severely ill, Dad had recently left what turned out to be his last pastoral position. So we went through the really rough stuff as active laypeople. My family has always been very involved in church and dedicated to our Christian faith, but we did not receive the help and support we needed from the church. Like other families, we were affected by stigma and a sense of shame that kept us mostly silent about our problems. And church leaders who wanted to help us, for the most part, didn’t know how to help. I don’t blame them for this; they must have been as confused and uncertain as most people are when it comes to mental illness.

In my own experience, what churches have done wrong is mostly remain silent—just ignore mental illness altogether. As a young teenager, I would have been helped tremendously by discussion of mental illness within the church and even within the context of my youth group. My whole family would have benefited from extensions of friendship and offers to help when we were at our lowest. Instead, we felt pressure to pretend as if everything were fine and to put on our best face at church. This had the effect of making me feel as if I needed to do the same in my relationship with God and kept me from really trusting him for a long time. It also forced me to seek answers to my deepest spiritual questions on my own; I didn’t feel I could go to anyone with them. 

The learning, in my view, is that talking about it (and doing so in a way consistent with sound Christian theology) is a great place to start and might accomplish 50 percent of what people need from the church. For people isolated by stigma and fear, it’s powerful to hear an acknowledgement that this kind of suffering exists, that it doesn’t mean God has abandoned them, and that people in the church might be willing to walk through it with them.

One of the most painful elements of mental illness is that it’s marked by isolation, which is exactly the opposite of what people need. Everybody needs community and loving friendship and a place where they belong. And one of the things people with mental illness most need is for this kind of loving community to tighten around them, not to loosen. 

This is one of the things the church can provide. In fact, the church is one of the only places left in our society where community is built in and readily available—at least in theory. So when we do know someone is suffering, we need to draw toward them, not away. It goes against the instinct we often have to pull back in an effort to keep from getting involved in something we’re not sure we can handle. But we can all handle being kind, being loving, extending a hand of friendship.

LifeWay Research recently found that a third of Americans—and nearly half of evangelical, fundamentalist, or born-again Christians—believe prayer and Bible study alone can overcome serious mental illness. I’ve heard stories from many friends and readers who say their pastors discouraged them from taking psychotropic medication, and even shamed them for it, suggesting that getting help for depression, anxiety, or even bipolar disorder represented a spiritual weakness. Why are teachings like these so dangerous? 

There are two big dangers here. These teachings perpetuate serious misconceptions about what it means to be a Christian. And they discourage people from seeking life-saving help. Most mental illness is highly treatable, with some treatments up to 90 percent effective. But only about half of people who need treatment actually receive it. 

Experts say more than 90 percent of people who die by suicide have a mental disorder. About 38,000 in the U.S. die by suicide each year, and some of that blood is on the hands of Christians who have discouraged, or even prohibited, their sisters and brothers from receiving help and hope in a mental health crisis. 

But suicide is not the only risk; this teaching perpetuates darkness and pain. Thousands of people live under a cloud of untreated mental illness, believing they are doomed to misery, their potential and purpose suppressed, and we are all poorer for it. 

I’ve also noticed that many churches discourage members from seeking professional counseling, urging them instead to receive all counseling “in house,” through the church. Why is this problematic? And how can pastors remain personally and pastorally involved in the lives of those struggling with mental illness while also recognizing when it’s time to make a referral? 

Churches need to understand that mental illness is not simply a spiritual condition. While it may be related to a spiritual issue, mental illnesses are real diseases and disorders with biological and environmental causes. People should not be expected to “get over it” or to be cured simply by reading the Bible, praying, and trying to have more faith. There is no reason churches should feel more qualified to address mental illness than other types of illness. I’m not aware of any churches in the US who do heart surgery or physical therapy in the pastor’s office. Churches should address the spiritual needs of people who are receiving help elsewhere, but that help should complement appropriate therapeutic intervention, not replace it. 

Churches can build relationships with mental-health professionals. Most Christian counselors are eager to work in partnership with churches, and many people in treatment will sign consent forms for their doctors or therapists to consult with pastors or other church leaders. When a loving, trusting, and supportive relationship is in place, the church can actively participate in helping people pursue their own health. And when those consent forms are not in place, church leaders can still consult professionals for general advice on how to respond to various types of illness within their congregations. 

You’ve described mental illness as the ‘'no-casserole' illness, meaning faith communities don’t always rally around a person or family suffering from mental illness the way they might a family walking through cancer. What are some practical ways Christians can better respond to their brothers and sisters dealing with mental illness? 

When someone comes to us and says, “I have cancer” or “I broke my leg,” we don’t freak out and think, “I have no idea how to fix that, so I’m going to tell the person to get professional help and walk away.” No, we don’t feel a sense of obligation to cure cancer or reset the person’s broken bone. We know what to do. We pray for them. We ask them what they need. We bring meals to their house to feed their family. We give them rides and make sure their kids are taken care of and even do the laundry.

But when someone is having a mental health problem, our first thought is more likely to be something like “I don’t know how to help with that.” We might tell the person to get professional help and figure we’ve done our job and there’s really nothing more we can do. Why don’t we offer casseroles to people who have a family member in a behavioral health hospital or a depressive funk? Why don’t we make sure they and their families are taken care of? There’s no reason we can’t, and it’s a great place to start because we already know how to do it.

There’s so much more the church can do, but I encourage people to start by thinking about the things you already know how to do for people in crisis.

In Troubled Minds, I profiled 4 churches that have programs specifically designed to offer support to people with mental illness. And there are many more programs out there. But not nearly enough churches are doing that kind of ministry. I hope and believe we are soon going to see many more churches doing so.

For those churches that are ready to do something bigger and more intentional to minister to people affected by mental illness, there are examples to follow. And one of the things many of them have in common is that they are led by people who themselves have a mental illness that they’re managing well, or who have a close family member seriously affected by mental illness. People’s own experiences help them see the desperate need for ministry in this area, and if they have done some healing and they’re not in crisis, they are perfectly positioned to do ministry to other people who are going through the same thing.

 In Troubled Minds, you speak with Christians battling a variety of mental illnesses. What have you personally learned about faith and life from them? 

Those conversations were educational and inspiring. And since the book released last year, I have had so many more. I speak at churches and conferences around the country, and I hear people’s stories. People send me emails. These conversations have deepened my faith and reinforced my belief in God’s incredible power of redemption. I feel like I have a front-row seat on God’s gracious work, and I am more convinced than ever of the truth of Romans 8:35-38. Absolutely nothing can separate us from God’s love. If death and hell themselves don’t have that power, mental illness certainly doesn’t.

I can’t help but think of my own family, who has been through a lot. All six of us are following Christ. All of my siblings are healthy, whole people engaged in ministry. And all of us are more compassionate, more ready to be used by God because of what we’ve been through. My mom is currently living in an assisted living facility. When my family visited her at Christmas time, we met some of her friends. One of them told us about the tremendous influence Mom has had on the other residents there. This man was not a person of faith, but he recognized the presence of Christ in my mom’s life. Because of her, he said, the other residents had more hope and joy in their lives. Because of her, people felt listened to. They felt like they had a friend. Because she had made it for him, he had a Christmas ornament hanging in his apartment: simply an artistic rendering of the name “Jesus.” And it wouldn’t have been there if she hadn’t been there. 

God has a purpose for everyone, and our limitations don’t limit him. People with mental illness are precious to him, and they should be precious to the rest of us.

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Be sure to check out Troubled Minds and Amy's blog.  Or follow Amy on Twitter

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