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.