Thursday, October 6, 2011

Mental illness and the church

A week ago this past Sunday, we had a rather unsual event take place after our church service. One of our homeless guests decided to climb to the top of one of the buildings across from where we have our afternoon feeding. Not good! I was able to get a picture of our climber as he neared the top of the building which must have been 15 stories of so high. He's a very fortunate young person, and that he didn't kill himself. There are many other sounds that I'd like to hear other than than police sirens and fire trucks!

I don't know this persons name and I have no idea why he did what he did. I can only surmise that he was on drugs (methamphetamine) or had a mental illness or both. I thought about this for several hours that afternoon and the event gave me pause to think about the prominence of mental illness which exists in our community, in the nation, and yes in the church. Moreover, I began asking myself what unique and specific role the church can play in helping the discussion on mental illness.

The facts are that approximately 25% of the general population are going to experience some form of mental illness during their lifetime. Yes that's one in four folks and higher numbers than we typically think. And by mental illness, I mean anxiety, depression, and PTSD just to name a few. And here's the extra rub, that percentage will be reflected in every churches congregation as well as the clergy who reflect the general population.

In our age of "self-disclosure", I think churches can play a signficant role in stepping up and leading the way to help us reframe our national discussion on mental illness. By speaking about mental illnesses publically, faith-based communities can help normalize many of the misconceptions which so often surround mental health issues. By speaking openly about mental illnesses, churches will promote healing and normalization of many people's experiences. And isn't this one of the tasks that  churches are to be doing-being centers of "truth-telling" where people can come and share their stories and struggles. Sounds like the gospel to me!

Two years ago, I had the opportunity to visit several churches and bring along some people who spoke  about what it was like to have children with mental illness. It was heart wrenching to hear their stories of loss when they realized their children would be very different than other children. I was also moved by the additional strength and meaning they found in their efforts to make sense of it all, and from the hope they gained in seeing others-including their own children-get well with professional help and often medication. It's this kind of "truth-telling" that can make churches a special place, a place of love and of total acceptance. And where else can one go?

We who minister to the homeless, to the hungry, and to those with mental illness, witness these simple graces all the time. This past Sunday gave me an opportunity to talk about mental illness and to remind our group not to get any ideas from our building climber. I remarked that if they want to climb something, look at the walls they may have put around others, or from outside professional help. Beginning there, is a great place for anyone to start.