Mental Illness: Helping the Church Help the Hurting


In the last decades of my father-in-law’s life, he slipped into a fog of mental illness from which he never returned. We did our best to help him–to find a diagnosis and effective medications. The years he lived with us were a constant battle of second-guessing, as we debated whether or not we were doing the right thing, doing enough, seeking out the “right” mental health professionals for his condition.

In my most recent book It Is Well with My Soul: Meditations for Those Living with Illness, Pain, and the Challenges of Aging, I devote a number of selections to the topic of mental illness. Dan and I both grew up in homes where mental illness was discussed in our homes and our churches as often as we heard about the mating habits of squid

This was probably a reflection, in part, of the generation we grew up in (a really old one). But it was also a reflection of the unspoken assumption in our era that “good” Christians don’t struggle with mental illness. Maybe Episcopalians, but certainly not ______ (fill in your non-Episcopalian denomination here).

So Dan and I were somewhat at a loss at what to do for his father–a precious, godly man and retired missionary who, in his seventies, slipped into a haze of mental illness so thick that we eventually turned to doctors at Mayo Clinic to help us find a diagnosis.

Neither of us had ever heard a sermon on mental health, had never heard another Christian speak of having a relative with mental illness, and had no idea where to turn in the church for help. As far as we knew, we were the only Christians in our church, our city, or our circle of friends who’d ever hit our heads against a wall trying to get a diagnosis.  or find effective medications and treatment. And we didn’t have a clue who we could honestly talk to about the fruit-basket-upset of trying to live gracefully as three generations under one roof when Grandpa was so ill.

We discovered that the church then, as now, unfortunately, had few resources to draw from–as models or in printed resources.

Recently Christians have been jarred into a new awareness of the issue of mental illness with the tragic death of Rick and Kay Warren’s son Matthew. Our hearts are torn as we grieve with and for them.

What can the church do to help?

1. Provide an environment of safety and compassion for those with mental illness. I’m proud to say that my church “mainstreams” those with mental illness. Children with Down’s are part of on-stage programming. Children’s workers are provided training in how to interact with special-needs children. Staff is trained in counseling and understands the needs of the mentally ill. The church communicates an attitude of acceptance and love that begins with the leadership.

2.  Talk about the issues. Provide forums for discussion and communication that are part of sermons presentations for the entire church community. Present mental health seminars as part of church and community education. Offer support groups for families and individuals or provide resources that link your congregation to available resources.

3. Respect the role of mental health. Many people with mental health diagnoses feel they must hide, and their family members often feel a lack of support. Respect the role of mental health by referencing its vital role and legitimizing the rightful use of mental health drugs that treat physiological illness.

We are called to be Jesus’ hands extended to the hurting. May our prayer be to see them, to know them, and to know how to love them.


19 thoughts on “Mental Illness: Helping the Church Help the Hurting

  1. Thanks for these thoughts and this challenge to church communities. I work for a large ELCA Lutheran congregation, but my friend/co-author and I also write and work in the area of living with those who suffer from depression and other mental illnesses. Because of my tendency to see everything theologically, I’m very concerned when I hear people (and I hear it a lot) cry out against “the church” because “the church” tells them that more faith, more prayer, and/or less sin will heal them of mental illness. It’s not “the church” – it’s whatever particulary denomination/congregation/individuals they’re affiliated with. There are many, many church bodies that do not hold such archaic and damaging beliefs.

    Just yesterday our lead pastor approached me about helping him prepare a two-part sermons series for the summer on depression and other mental illnesses and faith – messages of hope and support for hurting people. So your post really struck a chord with me. Thanks again for sharing.

    • Thank you for your comment. I, too, tend to see everything theologically. My father-in-law was a retired missionary who struggled with depression all his life. My mother died after suffering from Alzheimer’s for more than a dozen years. My colleague and I speak on post traumatic stress disorder in mental health, medical, and professional settings, as well as in churches and prisons. We received a mixed response from church friends when my friend pursued intensive trauma therapy for PTSD several years ago. The therapy saved her life, but the healing, of course, came from God. Thank you for your posts on this important issue.

  2. Thank you. Great post! I too am passionate about and concerned about how to help the church respond to those suffering mental challenges (and I am not only talking about Alzheimer’s and dementia). This generation of young adults are hurting and are falling into pits of despair; it’s epidemic! The church so needs to embrace them and help them keep their eyes fixed on the ONE who gives everlasting hope. And others, suffering debilitating depression and anxiety, oh how much they need compassion rather than whispering and sensitivity and condemnation. I believe the church (believers) is a key to restoration and being able to be open about our broken lives; I believe it’s time to help the church understand and teach them how to respond. I don’t believe incorrect responses are intended to be insensitive, just ignorant and I think for the most part, the church WANTs to know how. Patience will be required. But I want more than anything for the church to become that SAFE place for all. 🙂 Its biblical.

  3. I appreciate you addressing this important and timely subject.

    I “came out” with Bipolar disorder way back in 1994 when I was serving as a Presbyterian (USA) pastor. I was blessed to receive tremendous support from the local churches I served and from the denomination.

    I hope and pray more people with mental illnesses are blessed as I was.

    • Thank you for reblogging. Yes, this is certainly a topic that needs to be addressed by more churches and in more faith communities. Please check out additional postings at, written by me and my colleague Wanda.

      • One of the best books that helped me to understand PTSD in terms a layperson could understand was “Failure to Scream” by Dr. Robert Hicks. He helped me to understand that I had PTSD, which helped me to feel more “normal”…whatever that is!

        I believe that PTSD is vastly misunderstood. What is also misunderstood is how childhood trauma changes the way the brain develops…something else that knowing helps me today. I pray that you and others will keep reaching out to churches to help them help their people.

  4. Thank you so much for sharing this recommendation. And I agree that PTSD is often misunderstood. We are blessed to share our story of hope and healing.

  5. Seriously, I would have to be crazy to let others in the “church” know about my struggles. The “church” does not do well with that, nor does it (in my experience) keep confidences very well.

    Your post addresses a very real need, not just for caregivers, but also for ordinary people like me who just need some extra understanding and support. We are not looking for a crutch or even for everyone to be extra accommodating. We just want others to hear us out and understand that our struggles are not so oddball as they may think. We are more normal than they may realize for all of us struggle in one way or another with something. My struggle just happens to be in a different area, perhaps, than most.

    And it isn’t all about counseling, either. Childhood abuse, they now understand, cause changes that were not previously understood. There are physiological changes in our physical brains and in the way we remember things and connect things with memories. That leaves us with lasting effects that counseling won’t make go away. There are things that we truly cannot help, even though we do everything we can to work around them and keep them from affecting us and the ways we interact with others.

    Just sign me…”OneSurvivor who is tired of hurting in the church”

    • Thank you so much for sharing. The changes that occur in the brain can produce life-long impact. Several close friends and colleagues who tried numerous other therapy approaches found help at Intensive Trauma Therapy ( that radically changed their lives. We are grateful for opportunities to help educate the church, as well as professional communities by providing seminars through But much work remains to be done to continue to create environments of safety and understanding within our faith communities.

  6. Reblogged this on A Survivor's Thoughts on Life and commented:
    All I can really say to this is “I wish”! I wish the church would take a more serious look at the struggles people have. I wish they would stop living in unreality and get about the real business of our Creator. It is not supposed to be a “lay hands on and leave them” kind of thing. Our mission…our calling…is meant to be one of getting dirty with people and walking alongside of them and supporting them. It isn’t to pretend that prayer and faith automatically fix everything. People have no problem with crutches for broken legs and insulin for diabetes. How about real active support for those who struggle mentally and emotionally. Ah…but that requires hands on participation! People are allowed to be sick when it means that the extent of our “help” is to take them to appointments, clean their house, bring them meals for a specific duration. But when there is no end in sight and no crutches or wheel chair…hmmm.

  7. Youi make such a good point. I guess churches are reflecting society this way; turn their heads because it’s uncomfortable. One church we attended several years ago split apart because of this very issue. The pastor wisely referred someone to a psychotherapist for some difficult issues he felt were beyond his expertise. A large group of memebers thought he should just tell them to pray harder I guess. There was a mass exodous from the church and was a very painful time.

    • I’m sorry to hear about this painful situation. Unfortunately, pastors are often unaware of the complex medical needs involved. For instance, Parkinson’s disease often involves mental health and the need for complex combinations of medications to control both the physical and mental health symptoms. How interesting that when the apostle Paul went to prison, he chose a physician as his companion. I’m delighted to be part of a church that encourages people to seek qualified mental health professionals. All truth belongs to God, and he is the Creator of the complex systems of our brain. Thank you so much for sharing, Denise.

      • This is so true…God gives us all different gifts -some have the gift to help us spiritually or physically, and for some it’s to help us emotionally. It’s sad that some people feel threatened by this.

      • I agree. By the way, I’m a Harley biker chick. Love the pix on your site from your recent trip.

  8. Lighthouses around the Great Lakes. We live in Michigan. But we’ve loved riding in Colorado and the surrounding states. My husband did a 11,000 mile circuit around the U.S.

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