Across the nation, Canadians are commemorating Mental Health Week, May 2 – 8. Here Marja Bergen describes the traumatic experience of being stigmatized, and encourages fellow Christians to welcome those – and they are in every church – who experience mental illness.
Following her comment are links to two impressive resources. The Regent World has drawn together a selection of personal profiles, laments and field notes about experiences of mental illness from a number of people connected to Regent College. Then there is a useful set of resources gathered by Communitas Supportive Care Society.
Overcoming the stigma
A pastor told a story about how Jesus was there for those who were considered “unclean” during the time He walked the earth. Jesus drew close to those stigmatized individuals: the lepers, the lame, the blind. He had compassion for them, touched them, healed them . . . loved them.
At the end of his sermon the pastor asked, “Who are the unclean amongst us today?” . . . And I thought to myself: some of them are certainly those struggling with mental illness. They are feared by many, even now, even in the church.
Stigma is one of the ugliest features of being human. Everyone knowingly or unknowingly harbours a degree of prejudice towards those who are different from themselves. Though human and understandable, it’s wrong. The damage caused to individuals when they’re treated as “different” or “not normal” can be severe. This can certainly be so for people living with mental illness, those who already suffer so much from their symptoms.
Stigma causes anxiety, isolation and fear. Sometimes the pain caused by stigma is worse than the illness itself. In extreme cases, when a person is treated with lack of respect or without regard to his feelings, the resulting pain can be immense.
The person is left wondering: Why am I treated so much differently than others? What’s wrong with me? Am I really that bad a person? What have I done that’s so wrong? Should I find another church where I’ll be received with more kindness? Is there such a church? I love God and know that he loves me. I want to worship with others who feel the same way. Where is that church? Where will I be accepted?
The effects of mental illness, together with feelings of hopelessness, of never fitting in, always an outcast, causes many to take their lives. The pain becomes intolerable. Dying is the only way they see to escape.
Understanding needs to grow. This is especially true within the church, where acceptance and love are preached – where Jesus is our example.
Stigma is the result of fear. When we’re faced with mentally ill people, many of us don’t quite know how to respond to them. Nor do we know how they will respond to us. We end up not talking to them. We build a wall. It’s understandable. Many of us tend to be shy around people we don’t know, more so when they’re different from ourselves.
So how can we break through that wall?
As the Bible says, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear.” (1 John 4:18.) To conquer our fear of a person who is different from ourselves we need to see the person as a child of God, as we ourselves are children of God. Mentally ill people are our sisters and brothers in the faith loved by God, as we are loved by God. If we are to accept them, we must first love them.
Rather than avoiding people with mental illness, approach them with an open heart, taking time to listen to them. Hear about their hopes and their struggles. Show an interest in their life and – this is important – share your own life with them too.
Learn about their illness, reading and asking them about it. If you understand what they are dealing with you’ll be able to accept them and better know how to help. You might discover blessings that would otherwise not be yours.
As followers of Christ most of us have an inner joy, an assurance that God loves us and is with us. We are called to share ourselves with individuals who might not have this assurance or who, because of their illness, have temporarily lost it.
When people are in the midst of emotional struggles, they need to know they’re not alone. We can be God’s hands for hurting people, showing them the love God has placed inside us to share. We can let them know that God understands their suffering and that he suffers with them.
How those with mental illness need the church! How they need us, their fellow Christians, to be there for them as friends, companions on their Christian walk! Such people need a place where they will be valued and included in the life of the church. They need a place where they will be encouraged to discover their uniqueness and their gifts. They need a spiritual home where they will come to sense God’s leading as they join with the rest of their church family to build God’s kingdom.
Marja Bergen has written three books from her personal perspective of a life with mental illness. She writes weekly devotionals for people living with mental health issues. In 2006 she founded Living Room, a peer support ministry which is today part of Sanctuary Mental Health Ministries. Marja’s website/blog is http://marjabergen.com/.
Piece by Piece: Towards Mental Wellness
The current issue of The Regent World offers a number of valuable personal insights related to mental health:
Mental well-being depends on a delicate balance of factors including genetics, emotional and spiritual health, and stable life circumstances. Since these elements rarely align, many of us experience periods of languishing mental health. For those with clinical mental illness, there is a long-term struggle that requires a holistic, daily approach to care.
In the midst of such turmoil, how do we find the energy to get out of bed in the morning? How do we maintain our faith when God seems so far removed? What role do church communities play? And how do we journey with people who are struggling with mental health? These are just some of the questions we explore.
Among the writers are
* Matt Kitchener, Regent grad and pastor of preaching and pastoral care at West Point Grey Baptist Church (When I am Weak, Then I am Strong);
* Iain McGilchrist, who delivered the Laing Lectures at Regent earlier this year (Depression and the Depths of Hell);
* Tim Boland, the acting manager on Regent’s development team (A Cry Beyond Lament);
* Wilma van der Leek, who facilitates a three-year leadership training program for elders and deacons in local Christian Reformed churches (field notes);
* Hilary Guth, a research strategist in donor relations at Regent (field notes).
Communitas: God of All Comfort
Angelika Dawson, communications manager for Communitas, describes the purpose of God of All Comfort: Mental Health Resources for Church Worship: