When pastors are too kind: Don’t set those with mental health issues apart

Marja Bergen has helped many people suffering from mental health issues, through her books and in small groups.

Accepting people with mental health issues has greatly improved in past years, especially in our churches. Organizations like Sanctuary Mental Health Ministries are doing much to help churches learn how they can show God’s love to such individuals.

They are learning how to establish and run peer-led support groups like Living Room and Family Room for those who struggle with mental illness and family members. The improvement in opportunities for church communities to understand and have compassion has been remarkable.

But to be overly eager to help can present a danger. As soon as we start considering a person with mental health issues as different from us – having needs requiring special treatment – we are setting them apart. Considering a person more ‘needy’ than we ourselves might be is condescending and takes away a person’s dignity.

We who live with mental health issues want to be considered equal to those who support us. We don’t only want to receive, but when we’re well we’d like an opportunity to give. We need respect in the same way everyone does.

Boundaries essential

Boundaries are important to everyone. A person with clear, healthy boundaries communicates to others what they will permit and what they won’t. This is particularly true for pastors who are relied on for spiritual care and support. They can easily be overwhelmed. In fact, the more kind-hearted a pastor is, the more important it is to have boundaries protecting him or her from people’s demands.

One mistake often made: When individuals struggling with mental ill health behave inappropriately, pastors might choose not to correct them. They don’t want to be hurtful. Or they might fear the reaction it could cause.

However, it would be so much kinder to point out the problem and avoid repercussions later. Drawing attention to poor behaviour treats the person as capable of doing better; it would be condescending to expect that improvement isn’t possible.

When boundaries don’t exist, a pastor could get tremendously weighed down by a person’s heavy demands. It’s not uncommon for a pastor to start having problems with anger, resentment and stress overload. If this goes too far, he or she might even act out of character and inadvertently cause pain.

Treated in the same way

As someone with mental health issues, I don’t want to be – or believe I should be – considered less of a person. I want to be treated in the same way others are. Yes, I have a disorder and I struggle at times, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t be respected. When I’m thought well of I will have the confidence to be a good member of the community. I will be able to support others in the way I’m supported.

Those with mental health issues want you to care about them in the same way you care about others. In return, we want to care about you and your concerns when you’re willing to share them. Perhaps one day, we can return the help you’ve given us with support of our own.

Marja Bergen has lived with bipolar disorder for 50 years. She is the founder of Living Room, a support ministry now part of Sanctuary Mental Health Ministries.

She has written widely to encourage those living with mental health issues, including several books. Her emailed devotionals have been going out weekly for five years to people needing support.

Recently she published a 14-post blog series on the topic of Maintaining Healthy Relationships with Our Supporters.

Marja sees herself as a person like any other, and hopes that all who live with mental health issues will see themselves that way.

Two Sanctuary Mental Health Workshops are coming up at Regent College:

  • February 3: Mental Health, Faith & Youth: “Statistics affirm young people experience mental health concerns related to identity, relationships, and their future. What can faith communities offer youth so they are encouraged and supported to care for their mental health as part of their overall health?”
  • March 10: Mental Health & Addiction: “In this session, we will explore how substance misuse is related to mental health and illness, and the intersections that help explain why they often co-occur.  What are some ways in which the church community can support mental health and the process of addiction treatment and recovery?”
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