When mental illness arrives in the pews

Ben’s parents were mystified and deeply concerned. They had received a call that their 22-year-old son was being taken for a psychiatric exam at the hospital.

He had been a regular kid who was bright, creative, fun-loving and caring. Now he was acting in ways that were unusual for him – making wild accusations, seeming paranoid and going without sleep for days at a time.

Ben had complained about school pressures and his grades had suffered this past term; he wasn’t keeping up with his friends because he was working on a secret project.

The hospital waiting room was filled with people, and there was Ben, sitting handcuffed between two police officers. He had a wild look in his eyes, but his body was slumped in defeat.

He glared at his parents and accused them of trying to get him arrested. Ben’s parents were shocked that their son would say and think such things.

They were mortified, since they knew many of the families sitting in their small-town emergency room.

Ben has bipolar disorder.

What is bipolar disorder?

Bipolar disorder has two components: depressive episodes and manic episodes. There are several types of bipolar disorder, with different expressions of the depressive and manic episodes.

A depressive episode includes symptoms, such as a depressed mood, loss of interest or pleasure in what used to be enjoyable, irritability, dramatic changes in weight or appetite, insomnia, fatigue, feelings of worthlessness or shame, difficulty concentrating, and recurring thoughts of death or suicide.

During a manic episode, a person feels larger than life, needs little sleep, is more talkative than usual, has racing thoughts, and is physically agitated and impulsive, doing things that may have painful consequences (spending sprees, sexual indiscretions, gambling, driving recklessly).

Sometimes a person with bipolar disorder will also have psychosis – hearing or seeing what the rest of us don’t, or having bizarre or unusual ideas. Usually these symptoms are disturbing enough that a person can’t function or may require hospitalization.

The church’s response

When the church seeks to be a compassionate light to the world, how does it do so with individuals or families affected by bipolar disorder? A church community begins by acknowledging and identifying with a person’s suffering. It works to include people in all states of health, physical or mental, in the congregation.

The Bible urges us to care for those who have less (e.g., Philippians 2:1–8, James 1:22–27, 1 John 3:16-18, Deuteronomy 15:7–11, Matthew 25:34–46). Many who are homeless have mental illness. Many with bipolar disorder are not able to work, and even with government support can only access substandard (or even dangerous) housing and not have enough money to care for all their needs.

People who have a higher level of functioning may need supports to finish schooling, return to work, or find suitable work. Could the church find ways to help people help themselves?

Eden Health Care Services, a Mennonite Church-owned organization based in Manitoba, has integrated affordable housing in two communities, and vocational services and transitional housing in another. So much more could be, and needs to be, done in caring.

The list of fundamental Christian values could go on: love, forgiveness, restoration, inclusion, and not judging. Their application to people struggling with bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses are endless. As the larger church we’re limited only by our imagination and determination.

Valuing gifts

If we take seriously the image of the church as a body, we must ask what each person has to offer the community. “In fact, some parts of the body that seem weakest and least important are actually the most necessary…So God has put the body together such that extra honour and care are given to those parts that have less dignity” (1 Corinthians 12: 22, 24, NLT).

Often, we think of those with bipolar disorder as a burden to the church. However, each and every person has gifts: enthusiasm, drama, honesty about vulnerability, experience with the mental health system and more.

One of the best ways for a person to feel a sense of belonging is to be a participant, to have something to offer others. The body is made up of many parts, and when we are open to diversity we’re enriched!

Judge not

As previously mentioned, bipolar disorder can cause thought disturbances that lead a person to act impulsively or destructively. In the church, we often have a no-nonsense approach to undesirable or sinful behaviour: We tell the person to stop sinning. The complexity of bipolar disorder challenges such a basic approach to behaviour change and raises tough questions.

When, if ever, is a person not responsible for their behaviour? What role do physical factors play with emotions and relationships – how much do our brains affect our relationships? What about choice and tolerance – if a person chooses a behaviour that we have trouble with, can we tolerate it in order to remain in relationship?

There are natural and sometimes legal consequences for behaviours that fall outside the norm. How might we take to heart Jesus’ words, “Judge not lest you be judged”? Might we advocate for a person in the health care system, the judicial system, with an employer, at a store, with family members?

Mental health in worship

A very damaging aspect of a mental health diagnosis is the stigma that comes with it. Society and church sometimes perpetuate that marginalization out of fear and/or misunderstanding.

How liberating might it be to hear Scriptures, prayers, songs and sermons that take mental illness as seriously as physical illness? What if mental health issues were spoken of using “us” language rather than “them” language?

When we have the courage to speak about mental health compassionately, intelligently and publicly, we begin to make our congregations safe places for people whose lives aren’t all in order (all of us!).

When things are spoken aloud they become less secretive, less shameful, less binding; they have less ability to produce fear and fearful reactions.

Many Bible passages speak comforting words to those in distress. Some mental health organizations have lists of resources that can be used in worship.

Preventing burnout/fatigue

While everyone has abilities to offer the church, there are some who require much care and support. In small churches or towns, it may seem as though the same person (or the same few people) are available for crisis or support help. After a time, these people may become exhausted from their efforts.

There are ways to prevent fatigue. They take effort to establish, but eventually make the quality of caregiving and of the caregiver’s personal life go up.

First, find a group of people to support a high-needs individual. If one person isn’t available at a certain time, another can be called. People may have specific abilities and roles: offering practical aid, social contact or spiritual care.

Second, set personal boundaries. If Saturday is your family day, set a limit on caregiving activities. Being direct is helpful, since it provides clarity in the relationship.

Third, know your limits. These limits may include time (I can’t spend more than two hours per week), comfort factors (I can bring food, but I’m not a great listener), and awareness of your own well-being (I have been struggling with depression myself lately and don’t have the same emotional resources I used to).

The church is made up of human beings in all our diversity, uniqueness, abilities and difficulties. It’s a place where we can come together to explore our common humanity and grow together into people who express our greatest potential.

This is a journey we take together as we encounter a world that’s often challenging and often delightful. Let us delight in our relationships with one another!

—Joanne Klassen, M.A. (Marriage and Family Therapy), M.A. (Theology) This piece was originally written for Meetinghouse, an association of Anabaptist editors in Canada and the USA. 

This article appeared in Courier/Correo/Courrier April 2017.