I have heard it said that mentally ill people often seek out counseling from their religious leaders first. This means that, in the very beginning of their problems, the church has an opportunity to reach these people who are suffering with the love of Christ. However, we have failed to do this in many ways. People who struggle with mental illness are often told that they have demons or that psychiatry and medication is of the devil, therefore poisoning their minds against the very things that they need to recover and get a clear perspective on the world. This also backfires when they do get help from the psychiatrist and the medication does help them, for now they have a skewed view of the church and Jesus, specifically. This is an unfortunate truth that we must deal with.
My passions are for Christ and for the mentally ill. As a man who struggles with a diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder, I know firsthand what it is to need medication and therapy. I also know what it is to need the saving grace of God in Christ, and I have to rely on Him every day or else I will go off the rails and destroy my life. It is a delicate balance, to have a mental issue such as this. It can be hard to keep track of what’s what and do the everyday things that life requires. I have compassion for those who deal with it because I deal with it, too. My desire for the mentally ill is that they would find the compassion of Christ in the church and be accepted, not shunned and made to feel like worse sinners than they actually are. Having a mental illness is not a sin and we are not cursed by God for anything we have specifically done.
So what can the church do to help? First off, there needs to be education. Pastors and congregations need to be educated in the basics of mental illness, the biological underpinnings of it and the efficacy of medication. Where education lacks, ignorance and superstition take over. Mental illness isn’t necessarily caused by demons or some specific sin and it isn’t a lack of faith. Many people who struggle have tremendous faith and seek help from the church only to hit a dead end and find themselves turned out into the street to fend for themselves. Surely this is not what the Lord would do to such people had they showed up on His doorstep with problems that needed solving.
Another thing the church can do is encourage people to take their medication. I think many people are afraid of the notion of medication for mental illness, as if it were some addictive, demonic force that was being allowed into someone’s life. The truth is, when someone is in the throes of a mental illness, they often cannot make sense of reality and need the medication to help straighten out their thinking before they can understand and accept the gospel. It is definitely the end goal to get people saved, but they have to be able to understand what it is that they are being told in order to make a choice for Christ. Medication can help clear up muddled minds and restore the logical operation of a person’s mind, and should be encouraged whenever the mentally ill seek out help.
The church has the potential to be a place of great healing for the mentally ill in our communities. As the body of Christ, we should be the most interested in the well-being of these unfortunate people who suffer and often have nowhere to turn. Many are falling through the cracks and could be saved if only they could meet with knowledgeable people on their journey. The time for the church to step up is now, as the harvest field is ripe. Many who struggle, as I do, seek out the peace and comfort of Jesus and want Him to be their savior. Maybe we can learn to be there for them and make a real difference in their lives. It will take some effort and work on our part but it can be done. I believe that is what the Great Commission is all about.