Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.—Various attributions
According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, 20 percent of all Canadians will personally experience a mental illness in their lifetime. Those statistics apply to people in our congregations as well, even if we don’t always like to talk about them in church. One in five of us sitting in a Sunday worship service has experienced—or will experience—our own mental health crisis. And many more of us will walk in the valley of darkness with a family member, friend or colleague.
Illness of the brain and spirit are the result of complicated factors, some of which science can explain. Yet there is a lot about this class of illness that we do not understand. We do, however, witness some of its costs: loss of income, homelessness, fractured relationships, fear, a sense of shame and worthlessness, hopelessness, and sometimes death.
It is important to recognize that mental illness does not come from a lack of faith. In the complicated interplay of thoughts, emotions and physical processes, no one is going to “believe” themselves into wellness.
Neither is mental illness a punishment of God. John 9 tells the story of a man born blind, whose presence precipitated the question: “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus would not pin the blame for physical illness on anyone’s sin, and his actions show that he didn’t blame those in mental anguish either. As Jesus demonstrated, our loving God is present in times of physical and emotional distress, seeking to restore health and rebuild relationships.
Here are some ways the church can be a part of Jesus’ mission of mental healing and hope:
- Help all congregants learn about mental illness in its various expressions. Explore together what the Bible says about wellness and illness. Draw on the knowledge of mental health professionals in your church and community. We fear what we do not understand, so basic knowledge about the realities of mentally ill people can release the people in the pew to better care for each other.
- Equip pastors, elders, teachers and others to offer pastoral care, as their gifts and training allow. At the same time recognize when it is better to call on people with professional training—the physicians, counsellors, therapists and social workers in our churches and communities.
- Support Christian counselling centres financially and encourage congregants to use their services. Offer financial assistance for members who are not able to pay for their own counselling.
- Be a safe place where people can tell their stories and feel support. Worship services can deal with mental health themes and give opportunity for members to share about their own struggles. Offer times for public anointing and prayers for healing. Churches can help create support groups for people who are mentally ill, and their families, offering a place where one’s story can be told and prayers can be offered.
- Encourage each other to respond with practical expressions of care to people who struggle with mental illness. People “waging a great battle” need to know that they are not forgotten—and that they are loved. Sometimes a simple act of kindness can represent the face of Jesus to someone in despair.
- Recognize that no one can “fix” the mental illness of their neighbour. Be sure to set boundaries in relation to what you can and cannot do to support others in their struggles.
- Teach and promote spiritual disciplines for everyone—adults, youth, and yes, children. Recognize the role of spiritual practices in promoting good health. When we are aware of God’s love and presence, we can feel hope to take the next steps in our healing journeys.
In that great battle that we all face, here is the reminder: “Nothing is lost on the breath of God, nothing is lost forever; God sees with love and that love will remain, holding the world forever” (Sing the Story, no. 121).
Today we say farewell to Beth Downey Sawatzky, the Canadian Mennonite correspondent in Manitoba. She joined us in April 2016 and will conclude her time with us at the end of May. She plans to pursue masters’ studies in the field of journalism. Thank you, Beth, for your contribution, and best wishes in your studies!
See more in the Focus on Mental Health series:
On becoming a better person
Shimmering peace in the midst of darkness
Healing for soul and spirit
Mental health and ‘having faith’
Being the church in an age of anxiety
When mental illness drops in at church
Learning to let go
Students find relaxation through ‘puppy therapy’