Caring Well For Those Living With Mental Illness

This blog post comes to us from Kalee Vandegrift, a MFT intern with a degree from Fuller's School of Psychology. We love her heart for hurting people and here she gives us a great overview of mental health and the church. Check it out: 

Those who experience mental illness are part of one of the most marginalized communities in society. This often occurs subtly, and the lack of attention on mental illness makes this group feel even more insignificant and like outsiders. This dismissal, whether intended or not, can leave people feeling hurt, lonely and discriminated against. Within mental illness there is a broad range of diagnoses and intensities. I don’t want to speak towards the nuances and issues of individual diagnoses, but I’d rather talk about mental illness in its broader fashion, and discuss how we act as a people, a church, the body of Christ, loving and caring well for those living with mental illness.

I would like to begin with what some people believe about those with mental illness: a mental diagnosis is not a person’s identity. It is not who a person is. A person’s identity is established in Christ, and he or she was created in the holy and righteous image of God. Having a mental illness is a consequence of the fall of man, of living on this side of heaven, and of the brokenness of this world. The idea that a person’s identity goes beyond their mental illness can be a struggle not only for an outsider, but for the diagnosed as well. It can become so embedded in how people view themselves that it becomes a struggle to let go of mental illness as an identity. There is tension in the idea that this is not who I am, yet it is currently something I have and live with.

There is much discussion over the different ways to treat mental illnesses and in reality; a great deal is still unknown about the brain and similarly about mental illness. The newest updates and research on the brain are soon outdated with new findings. The beginning of a person’s struggles can be caused by multiple or combined factors: organic causes, life circumstances/stressors, drug use, genetics, and more. There is often a misunderstanding about the behaviors of those that have mental illness. For example, not taking medication, isolating, or unhealthy eating or sleeping habits, are many times a sign of their diagnosis. It is not simply a lack of a person’s commitment to their health or an indication of their strength to stay consistent with treatment, but it’s actually a symptom or a clue that a stronger problem is at play. 

There is not a cure for some diagnoses; rather what is offered is treatment and symptom management available through various mental health disciplines.  Some diagnoses are chronic, which require more serious and structured treatment, while others can be managed with psychotherapy. And many diagnoses can at times be helped by medication to regulate brain chemicals that are out of balance. There is not one size fits all solution, thus we must be cautious about treating people without recognizing their individuality.

I do believe God is the ultimate healer, all-powerful and He has the ability to heal anyone, any issue, at any moment. God is also God and I do not know why He intervenes to heal some of disease and not others. We cannot use reason to answer this. To do so would be limiting God, and we do not have authority over him to understand or tell Him what to do. That does not mean we give up hope, nor does it mean we make assumptions as to why someone has a mental illness…Rather we have to learn how to live in the ambiguity of the gray, in the tension of what we may not know or understand, to live in the not yet, and still be a loving community that seeks to walk with one another in and through brokenness.

Church is one of the key communities we have to face where mental illness has been marginalized. God created the church to be his body, with Jesus Christ as its head – to be his hands and feet, loving, serving and coming alongside one another for the good and glory of the other. One step in this direction is as simple as not turning your head away from the issue and being open to those struggling from a humble stance. Taking a posture that does not assume or quickly move to judgment, but one that is open, accepting and compassionate. To offer a blanket statement or response such as, “Just be happy, think positive thoughts,” or “You need to pray more,” is dismissing and minimizing to the person’s experience and heart, not to mention ineffective. It is damaging and I believe unbiblical to blame illness on a lack of faith, or personal sin. The simplistic responses such as, “Trust God,” are important truths and there is a place for such reactions, but other times, many more times, there is more needed and at stake. Some times what people need most, what any person needs, is not for another to fix or to have an answer, but to feel safe and accepted in the presence of another person while being fully known.  

It is important that those in the church and Christian communities to understand their scope of knowledge and abilities in order to provide the most beneficial care. We all need to be aware of how much we know and do not know, and let that inform what it looks like for us to be the most loving and present with someone struggling. Having these boundaries allows us to love the other with increased freedom because we are not taking on more than we are able to help with or hold. It is good to educate yourself on mental illness and on available resources, such as therapists and crisis lines to refer people to. By connecting a person to the appropriate resources (if needed), and/or providing yourself with needed support, you are offering the best care and truly honoring the other person. A body is made up of parts; every part is important, and does not function separately of the others. Thus, we are not a body by ourselves that can help everyone individually. To try to do so could put the one struggling at risk and be harmful. This was not God’s design, and each part is just as important, whether that’s being a friend, therapist, pastor, doctor, etc.

The hope is to cultivate a safe community for those who have a mental illness or any type of brokenness, to be able to live openly, be known, and be provided with support that is not shaming, free from judgment, offers healing and is not discriminating. This kind of support does not mean you are enabling or allowing people to dwell in their diagnosis. It is seeing people through the lens of Jesus and treating them with dignity and honor.