In the mental health ministry that’s underway at ironbridge.org, there are lots of things we’re doing: looking at documented needs within our geographic community and within our church body, making decisions about training and securing the right resources to provide the needed training. More details on that in the final paragraph below.
But the harder question, the one we wrestle with fairly often, is ‘So What?’ If we determine training needs and find the trainers and programs, if we set up a coping skills class for parents of kids with mental illness, if we establish support groups, will the newfound support break down the stigma? Will the methods and skills delivered in coping skills class become habit, or just head knowledge? Even with offering training and talking openly about mental health issues, will mental illness continue to be viewed as an ‘us vs. them’ problem?
These are fair questions. Truth is, mental health ministry will only have lasting impact if it is delivered and provided with love. Not mandated by the church leaders, but loving as a way of life of the broader faith community. Not the fluffy Hallmark© kind of love, but true agape – deep, personal, sacrificial.
Through the lens of mental health issues, here are a few modified verses from 1 Corinthians 13:
If a depressed person joins my small group, I will be patient, I will be kind. If an outcast kid in youth group acts weird, I will not seek my own clique, I won’t be provoked to irritation by their behavior, I won’t take into account the socially wrong thing he said. I won’t rejoice in the unrighteousness of those awkward people being cast out of my group, but rejoice with the truth that Jesus loves the one I find unlikable.
Ouch. Sacrifice and serving someone I don’t really like doesn’t sound like very much fun. But it sounds and looks and tastes and smells like the kind of ministry Jesus did. And it’s what He calls His followers to do. Love beyond your own ability to love. Love like that is impossible without the Holy Spirit operating through you.
More 1 Corinthians 13:
When my understanding of mental illness was small, child-like, I reasoned like a child: odd behavior has to be sin. When my understanding of mental illness and neurological differences grew through factual information, I did away with my childish interpretations, and though I still have a dim understanding of mental illness, at least I now understand more clearly, while my Lord fully knows my own flaws and frailties.
More than anything, mental health ministry is about your church community, as a whole, getting the concept that people with mental health issues aren’t problems to be solved, they are people to be loved.
The people most likely to provide that kind of deep, personal, sacrificial love to those who don’t fit neatly into our programs are the ones who have been wounded by mental illness, their own or that of someone they love.
One thing we’re working on, that has been shown to be effective for other education topics: the power of stories. Ask the wounded ones to share their experiences. As theologian Henri Nouwen said of his own depression and why he wrote about it, “What is most personal might be more universal.”
If those who have experienced and lived with mental illness are willing, videotape their stories, so the beneficial and instructional aspects of their stories can be shared repeatedly. The professional mental health community has learned the great value that comes from engaging people with lived mental health experience in helping others navigate their own illnesses and recovery. Within the church community, we can learn from those with lived experience what has been helpful (or harmful) in allowing them to see their mental illness as part of the human condition and the journey of faith.
A 2014 survey of church attenders revealed that 65% of family members in a household of someone with acute mental illness want the local church to talk more openly about mental illness, so that the topic is not so ‘taboo.’ Only 2 in 5 of church-attending people with mental illness surveyed said their church has helped them think through and live out their faith in the context of mental illness. Sharing the stories of those with lived experience is one way to deepen church community and connection, begin breaking down the stigma, and begin delivering support to those suffering silently.
Here’s a link to the mental health ministry implementation outline at Ironbridge. We’re working through the third stage right now; we’re setting up training, working on consistent communications about mental health across the church body; we’re figuring out how to coordinate meeting practical needs. More details on each of these in the months to come.