Be kind to those in your church living with mental illness and mental health challenges

by Chris Summerville

I write as a person with lived experience, as a former pastor who has struggled with dark periods of depression, suicidal ideation and the misuse of alcohol. Mental health problems are generational in the Summerville family. I grew up in rural Alabama with a father who also struggled with all three and more, before he took his life by suicide, even after he experienced a genuine and authentic spiritual salvation.

While accepting the forgiveness of God and his family, he could not forgive himself for the horrors he had created for his wife and seven children.

Chris Summerville, CEO of the Schizophrenia Society of Canada and a national leader across Canada within the mental health recovery movement.

As an evangelical pastor I addressed issues of social justice, environmental (creation) care, and mental health problems even back in the 80s and 90s. So after working the last 22 years in the mental health recovery movement, what wisdom would I share with pastors?

1) Christians, just as they are not immune to physical health problems, are not immune to mental illness and mental health problems in this fallen world. One in five Canadians presently live with a mental illness. Obviously, many of these Canadians are followers of Christ. Mental illness refers to a wide range of mental health conditions — disorders that affect your mood, thinking and behavior. Examples of mental illness include depression, anxiety disorders, psychosis, schizophrenia, eating disorders and addictive behaviors. Mental health problems can also be caused by adverse childhood experiences (trauma) which I experienced. All Christians have mental health concerns from time to time. Mental illnesses generally create a disorder in your life, and for that reason are called mental disorders by psychiatry. They can be mild, moderate or severe. They can be temporary, intermittent, or enduring. But they are treatable.

2) Don’t over spiritualize the problems of those in your church who live with a mental illness.  While those living with a mental illness are not immune to sin, it is wrong to assume that mental health problems are always the result of spiritual problems or that mental illness is a manifestation of “demonization.” Yes, every problem, difficulty, and challenge involves spiritual warfare. I am still puzzled by many pastors who demonize those with mental illness, but not those with Alzheimer’s or physical illnesses.

3) Check your attitude for stigmatizing those living with mental illness and mental health problems. Avoid stigmatizing language in our sermons like as “schizo,” schizophrenic,” “loony,” “nutcase,” etc. Words hurt and language matters.  I wonder what Jesus thought when His family thought He was “insane” (Mark 3:31) as some translations read? Remember that a diagnosis is just a label; it is not a person’s identity. See a person rather than a label. Also realize there is a social construction to society’s view of mental illness. Too often we give people a label of mental illness when they do not conform to our social norms. With the advent of Blue Tooth technology, everyone now is talking to themselves on the side walk!

4) Engage passionately in pastoral care to those living with a mental illness and include their families. The largest mental health hospital in Canada, the Centre for Addictions and Mental Health in Toronto, does not even have a gift/flower shop because patients there receive so few visitors. One lady I know told me that following breast cancer surgery she had fellow Christians bringing her all kinds of casseroles. But when she was hospitalized for Bi-Polar Disorder, no one from her church visited her in the hospital or brought over casseroles when she went home. Pastors, don’t be guilty of discrimination towards those with mental illness. Create prayer and peer support groups for them and their families. Design spiritual formation groups that are intentional social expressions of love. And visit them in the hospital. Be knowledgeable of community mental health organizations like the Canadian Mental Health Association, the Schizophrenia Society of Canada, the Mood Disorders Society of Canada, and local crisis response services.

5) Those in your church working with children and emerging adults (adolescents) should take the Mental Health First Aid Course offered by many mental health agencies. Why? Because 75% of all mental illnesses have their origin in late childhood and adolescents. Early identification, early intervention, and early treatment can prevent full-blown mental illness and have more positive outcomes. A sudden personality change should not be merely passes off as just a part of the adolescent stage.

6) Thoroughly educate your congregation about mental illnesses and mental health issues. Languishing, negative mental health also involves a lot of suffering. Healthy spirituality involves good mental health.  Remember that good mental health is not just the absence of mental illness. The World Health Organization defines mental health as a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community. Also debunk the myths, misunderstandings and misconception about mental illness. Observe in your worship services Mental Illness Awareness Week (first Sunday in October) and Mental Health Week (first Sunday in May). Make sure your church environment is a safe, welcoming, and empathic place for those living with mental health issues.

7)  People living with mental illness and mental health challenges can have good mental health and a healthy Christian spirituality. We call this the “recovery journey” in the mental health movement: living beyond the limitations of mental illness with a sense of meaning, hope, purpose, identity and social inclusion. Many congregations offer Celebrate Recovery developed by Saddleback Church in California. (Remember that Rick and Kay Warren’s son took his life by suicide after years of untreatable depression. Christians are not immune to suicide.) Also recognize the spiritual gifts of those with mental illness. Pastor John Piper wrote a book entitled The Hidden Side of God: The Fruit of Affliction in the Lives of John Bunyan, William Cowper, and David Brainard. William Cowper who wrote “There is a Fountain Filled with Blood,” and the poem “Light Shining out of Darkness,” which gave English the phrase: “God moves in a mysterious way/His wonders to perform,” suffered intensely most of his life with depression, suicidal ideation and attempts, and was hospitalized for several years in an “asylum.” The hymnist, John Newton engaged in constant meaningful pastoral care and compassion to Cowper.

Finally, I have had many Christians and non-Christians tell me that Sunday is the loneliness day of the week as they feel out of place in church.

Don’t let your church be guilty of that kind of unkindness.

Chris Summerville, D.Min., CPRP, LL.D (Honorary), is the CEO of the Schizophrenia Society of Canada and a national leader across Canada within the mental health recovery movement, having served on the Board of Directors of the Mental Health Commission of Canada and currently with the Mood Disorders Society of Canada Board. He is an adjunct professor at Brandon University, an ordained pastor and lives with his wife Carolyn in Steinbach, Manitoba.

During Mental Health Week, these Faith Today stories might be of interest to you as well: “Tackling Addictions and Harmful Habits” (a profile of Celebrate Recovery), “How a Rule of Life Helps Christians Live Well,” “Stability is the Key: Helping Children After Divorce,” “Don’t Turn Away From Suffering.


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