Ending the Shame of Mental Illness

By Jim Tune

In the early years of our church plant in Toronto, one of our staff members preached a message about mental illness and faith. He made himself vulnerable as he shared about a season of significant depression in his life. The story he told was courageous and honest. I remember it as a defining moment in our new church’s development.

Man looking at the windowMental illness was, and still is, a topic that rarely is discussed head-on in churches. In sharing his story, our speaker brought mental illness out from behind the curtain of shame and exposed it to a liberating light.

After the service, many church members waited to greet, thank, and encourage him. His message opened up conversations with those who also suffered from mental illness. I guess that shouldn’t have been a surprise.

Almost 25 percent of the adult population has experienced some form of mental illness requiring medication—from depression to borderline personality disorder, autism to bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder to anxiety/panic disorder. When leaders from 500 different congregations were surveyed, nearly all of them (98.4 percent) indicated they were aware of mental disorders among people in their congregations.

I was proud of our church that day. Unfortunately, later that afternoon I received a discouraging e-mail from a person who was very upset with that morning’s message. I was told that our speaker shared too much information and that his level of transparency was inappropriate. If someone struggled with mental illness, he or she needed to deal with it discreetly and defeat it through prayer, I was told.

A short time later, I came across an article about a Lifeway Research study on mental illness and the church. One statement arrested my attention. Bob Smietana wrote:: “A third of Americans—and nearly half of evangelical, fundamentalist, or born again Christians—believe prayer and Bible study alone can overcome serious mental illness.”

There is power in prayer. But mental illness, like any other real disease, often requires the help of medication and other therapies.

It’s possible that up to one quarter of your church is coping with or has had to cope with mental illness. And it is as likely to be present in staff members as the people in the pews. This means someone you know may be living with the pain or stigma of mental illness—and he or she may be suffering in silence, without compassionate support from other church members.

Churches are beginning to understand the issue. Removing the stigma by making the church a safe place to talk about mental illness is a good first step. Stop avoiding the issue. Get informed. Show compassion. And welcome people into the safety of the gospel.

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