Brain Illness: How the Church Can Help


My father-in-law Norman served as a missionary who worked with children for more than twenty years. Put Norman front of a crowd of kids, and they sat in rapt attention. Put him in a room filled with adults, and he struggled to know what to say.

It took my husband’s family decades to understand how profoundly Norman’s father’s suicide affected him and how as a child Norman became “stuck” in trauma when his father hung himself from the barn rafters. Norman was the child who’d found his dad.

My husband was in his twenties when he learned his father had committed suicide. And even after that, family members seldom talked about it. The same thing seemed to be true decades later when Norman developed aspects of mental illness. No one in the churches we attended seemed to see a relationship between mental illness, faith, and the Bible.

Dan and I were told to hang on, trust, and read the Bible. Great advice. But not words that represent the heart of God for the hurting.

Mental Illness and the Church

About ten years ago, Dan’s job moved us to a new community, and we joined a church with a different feel from any church we’d known before. The senior pastor spoke openly about his childhood in an alcoholic home and how his experiences had shaped his fears, expectations, attitudes, and patterns for relating. Other pastoral staff members referenced their struggles from their painful pasts. About a half a dozen pastoral staff members were licensed counselors, and several times a year the church offered to pay for counseling for individuals or family members in need.

Not just with church staff counselors.

The church had a health counsel that included physicians and counselors who taught regular classes on all aspects of health–including the brain. We were (and are) taught that stewardship of our bodies includes health in body, soul, and spirit, and that mental health is not an “add-on” to physical health.

The most refreshing aspect of all is that those with brain illness (or mental illness) were welcomed in an environment of safety and support, were offered practical and financial resources, biblical teaching, and the counsel of experienced and godly professionals.

How the Church Can Help

  • Develop a top-down culture of openness toward mental health in the church. Pastors communicate safety and acceptance when they talk about their own failures, struggles, and journey of growth. Reflect healthy transparency as staff members about accountability in the battles of life.
  • Offer resources on brain illness to your church and community. Incorporate health ministry as integrated aspect of church life, and teach the biblical relevance of stewardship of body, mind, and soul. Even small churches can compile local and online resources or direct people to other ministries. Offer classes for those with chronic illnesses and their caregivers. Offer education from medical and mental health professionals, as well as those who have experienced medical and mental health needs. Give those within your community a voice.
  • Model and teach compassion, acceptance, respect, and grace. Many people with brain illness feel they have no one to talk to. A recent survey indicated that 49% of people are afraid to be a friend to someone with a diagnosed mental illness. If you’re a pastor, integrate message about mental health. Model compassion, love, and respect. If you’re a member, encourage church leaders to engage in training and seminars, such as the recent Gathering for Mental Health in the Church at Saddleback Church.
  • Network with other ministries. Learn what other churches in your community offer–GriefShare, Stephen Ministers, cancer support and chronic illness groups, respite and other support services.
  • Reach out. Sometimes hope begins with something as simple as a phone call, a hand on a shoulder, a cup of coffee, or taking time to simply listen.

Hang on. Read the Bible. And trust God. Then do what he did: jump into the mess of this world and confront the pain as you bring comfort and hope to the suffering.


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