FOR SERIOUS AND chronic mental illness, there is no cure—short of a miracle. There is no “all better.” Even when well managed, such illness is a lifelong reality, and relapses can happen without warning. Even for episodic illness, the road to health can be long and mountainous. Walking alongside someone with mental illness may mean a lifelong hike over peaks and valleys, learning to grow in faith and in relationship with Jesus through an illness that clouds the view. That walk might cause mistrust of reality and of a person’s own thoughts. It might require extra patience for processing truth. It might repeatedly tax the resources of the church and its fellowship. And churches, like other organizations, grow tired of such taxation. Culturally, we expect people who fall down to pull themselves back up and put their hands to the plow. Sure, everyone stumbles occasionally. And we’re willing to give help in times of crisis. But when that time of crisis doesn’t seem to end, we start to wonder why we’re still helping. Why we’re not seeing progress. Why we’re not moving on.
The father of a son with bipolar disorder spoke passionately from his experience:
Attitudes have to change. This doesn’t go away. … that’s the issue that anyone with mental illness or anyone who is going to minster to mental illness is going to eventually wade into. Wait a minute. We helped you with this a year ago, two years ago. The problem is like telling a diabetic, “We helped you with your blood glucose a year ago.” Yeah, but guess what. They’ve got to do this every minute of the day until they die. So that is a daunting task … it has to fall to the whole body of Christ, because it’s only the body that can handle something like that for a lifetime.
I spoke with a pastor who had a high degree of confidence that his church was doing well in serving people with mental illness. And relatively speaking, his church is. They have created an atmosphere where it’s all right to acknowledge that people aren’t perfect and it’s normal to have problems. At the same time, I heard a typical impatience reflected in what he said to me: “My personal philosophy is that you can come here and be screwed up, you just can’t stay screwed up. We all need recovery from something.” I appreciate his emphasis on growing as a person, rather than staying stuck. I appreciate the idea that we need to strive for sanctification and holiness. And people with mental illness need to work hard to manage their illness as effectively as possible. But they might still “stay screwed up” over the long term, even after working hard and taking required medications.
When churches have antibiotic-like expectations for mental health treatment, they communicate, “Go get treated, then you can come back and you can be a growing Christian with us.” The problem is, many people can get treated for the rest of their lives and learn to manage an illness, but will never be “over it.” For some, their illness is a disability that will hinder them to some degree at least occasionally and even daily. Our expectations of healing cause frustration for everyone. And they send the false message that God is patient and loving with us only to a point, and past that point, we’re on our own.
Taken from Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission, by Amy Simpson. Copyright (c) 2013 by Amy Simpson. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, PO Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515. www.ivpress.com