By Dan Hyun
Sometimes, local churches struggle to care for people who face mental health issues and give the subtle, or perhaps even overt, message that mental illness is a result of insufficient faith.
People who face such issues are sometimes admonished that if they’d just pray more or believe the gospel more robustly, their mental health issues would disappear. Though this sentiment may be well intentioned, the message itself is usually not helpful. The process of caring for one’s mental health can be a long and arduous journey.
For this reason, I affirm there’s not a quick fix when dealing with mental health issues. However, there are ways pastors can lead their churches toward greater understanding in this area. Here are three ideas to help your church think rightly about mental health.
1. Encourage people to get the help they need.
The sad reality is many people with mental illnesses go untreated because they don’t know where to find help until it’s too late. I’ve heard of many tragic situations where people believed they had to work on their mental health issues alone. But help is out there.
The local church is God’s chosen agent for bringing Christ’s redemption to the world. This doesn’t mean, however, that the church is intended to be the sole or primary caregiver in every situation.
We wouldn’t refer someone with a broken arm to seek treatment in the church. In the same way, don’t be afraid to direct people with mental illnesses to professionals who are equipped to provide appropriate treatment. Help is available, and people in our churches shouldn’t suffer needlessly.
One of the most helpful ways churches can work to remove stigmas in this area is to clearly communicate that mental illness isn’t something to be ashamed of—any more than a physical illness like cancer is. The more we can convey that help and resources are available both in and outside of the church, the greater the opportunity will be for people to receive the assistance they need—help that could be the difference between life and death.
2. Cultivate a caring community.
Many people who face mental health issues find it challenging to find a safe space to share their struggles with others in the local church. This is because when they do open up, they’re given simple platitudes or empty, spiritual-sounding jargon that proves unhelpful. As a result, far too many people in our churches walk alone in their struggles.
However, people who have strong networks of relational support through their local church almost always do better than people who don’t have such communities of care. Walking together with those who face mental illnesses allows the church to be the church. Continually remind your people of the biblical mandate to be there for one another in times of both joy and struggle (Romans 12:15).
It takes time and patience to develop this kind of relational support in your church. In a small group setting, it may look like someone sharing his or her struggles every week, but not experiencing noticeable change.
This can become frustrating for everyone involved, but a community who commits to care for one another over the long haul makes a significant impact. The two most essential things we can provide to people who walk in the darkness of mental illness is a willingness to listen and a deep commitment to love one another with sensitivity.
3. Offer reminders that God is enough.
Some people may face mental illnesses all their lives. This doesn’t mean God isn’t at work or that practical helps aren’t available.
We should do all we can to direct our people to mental health resources that can make a significant difference in their lives. But even if our people are granted some relief, mental illness may continue to be a painful thorn they experience in their walk with Christ.
Let’s offer our people the hope that this thorn doesn’t indicate the absence of God but rather an invitation to know the God who promises to be with us in all situations. People who experience mental suffering are sometimes granted a deeper glimpse into the heart of Jesus who’s described in Scripture as “a man of sufferings” (Isaiah 53:3). Jesus is the Savior who’s familiar with sorrow.
God doesn’t abandon His children
When it comes to addressing and responding to mental illness, proclaim the kind of transformation that’s possible in Christ. But also remind your people that God doesn’t promise an absence of struggle in this life. Mental illness, like any other kind of illness, is evidence of a broken world.
Yet, even as we suffer in the depths of despair, preach the beautiful gospel that God hasn’t abandoned us. The good news of Jesus tells us we don’t need to tackle mental illness alone because God promises He’ll be with us.
Even as we struggle, God promises to be enough.
Dan is the husband to Judie, father of two girls, and lead pastor of The Village Church and Send City Missionary for Baltimore, Maryland.