Amy Simpson’s article, “Supporting Families Living With Mental Illness” resonated deeply with me. Her story speaks of a journey that many walk in silence; one with which I am all too familiar. I am ordained in the Evangelical Covenant Church but currently am not serving in a pastoral position. However, I do have a ministry. It is through my own family’s journey with our child, who is being treated for Bipolar Disorder, that my eyes were opened up to the need for educating and equipping the local congregation to care for others walking our journey.
Recently, I had the privilege of leading a workshop at the ECC Central Conference Women’s Spring Celebration for women with children affected by mental illness or other challenges. The fact that the room was packed spoke volumes. That room became a place of refuge and belonging. Common experiences shared included isolation, exhaustion, and the need for community – specifically for Christian community. Simpson’s call to action to the church to support families affected by mental illness matches my own experiences as a parent and as part of the body of Christ. I offer here some practical suggestions for how the local church can support families struggling with mental illness.
Educate: Become aware of organizations that supply information about the condition. For ministry staff, the questions that arise may include: How do I care for this person and their family? How do I help educate the congregation without drawing negative attention to the individual (and family members)? Since the symptoms fall on a large spectrum, the individuals have different needs. Some churches have a sunday school class that particularly caters to children with special concerns. We give practical suggestions to teachers when cues such as frustration or anger are presented.
Understand the impact on the entire family:As Simpson notes, “…behind every person with mental illness is a family that has been impacted-perhaps even devastated-by that illness.” Time, energy and resources are often drastically reduced in caring for the affected individual. Siblings may feel neglected. One idea that has been welcoming to us is the inviting of our other children to play at other families’ homes. It’s a simple act that benefits everyone and reminds the siblings that they are special too. Any gesture that can ease tension is a gift to the family.
A note on a theology of suffering: Simpson cautions against a theology of suffering that teaches “that life should be easy and happy.” While I agree with her, I would also admonish against a belief that medication/treatment provides a diversion from acknowledging the reality of suffering. I know persons with mental illness who have refused medication because they believe that the illness is a “cross to bear.”
People facing other illnesses such as diabetes, heart conditions, etc. do not usually see their conditions from that perspective. In particular, parents of children with mental health issues may struggle with embracing the use of medication to help their child. Further complicating the decision by throwing a misguided theology of suffering on them is not helpful. I believe that God has gifted individuals to develop medications that help restore “normal” processes of the brain and give those affected a better quality of life.
The beauty of the Christian community is that we are made better by growing together. We gain a bigger picture of God’s character through our interactions with each other. My daughter loves and is effective in helping in certain tasks. When she was younger, she placed the communion cups in the trays. She also helps prepare the snacks (and I might add enjoys being creative in this task) for our Café’ which follows our Sunday worship service. Children, in general crave purpose. Involvement affirms the truth that they are an important part of the community. . The Apostle Paul writes, “Therefore encourage one another and build each other up…”. (1 Thessalonians 5:11) As Simpson states, “Helping people with mental illness is part of the church’s mission and calling. This is true not only for church leaders, but also every Christian. We are responsible for our response to people in need.”