On Monday, I explained how God used the tragic death of a man with schizophrenia to fund research into the connections between mental illness and Christian faith.

The Study of Acute Mental Illness and Christian Faith was conducted by LifeWay Research and its objectives were:

1. To equip family members and churches to care for loved ones suffering from acute mental illness, by expanding the understanding of what these persons experience, applying what Scripture says about essentials of faith, and sharing positive contributions that can be made in these individual’s spiritual lives

2. To help family members and churches discern the spiritual state of loved ones suffering from mental illness.

Over the next few weeks, I want to start sharing some of the results of the research and hope the bullet point style of presentation will make the material useful for personal education and also helpful for discussion groups.

The following summary findings were the result of hour-long interviews with fifteen Christian mental health professionals whose practice includes regular treatment of those who have schizophrenia, severe depression, and bipolar disorders.

Mental Health Experts on Shame and Stigma

  • People with mental illness or their families deal with a large amount of shame and social stigma around the illnesses.
  • People assume the person has “done” something to cause it.
  • Honest conversations that bring clarity to the topic are needed.
  • Conversations about mental illness need to change in frequency and in tone.

Mental Health Experts on the Family

  • Parents of children with mental illness deal with a substantial amount of denial and grief.
  • Questions about suffering are common.
  • To move forward, parents have to learn to dream new dreams for their child and their families.
  • Key tools for families.
    • Establish realistic time frames.
    • Understand illness isn’t going to just “disappear.”
    • Let go of others’ expectations.
    • Make room in their lives to deal with the illness.
    • Establish boundaries that lead to success.
    • Understand that it’s not about them.

Mental Health Experts on the Church & Community

  • People with mental illness turn to the church first for help.
  • Church has an opportunity to be a place of healing.
  • Pastor’s reactions to people struggling with mental illness are varied.
  • Pastors need to understand their own limitations.
  • Walking with the mentally ill can benefit the congregation, not just the individual.
  • Prepare for the cyclical nature of it and potential relapses.
  • Pastors are most likely to change their view on mental illness once they are personally impacted by it. 

Mental Health Experts on Faith & Maturity

  • Patients may forget to tell a mental health caregiver about struggles with their faith because they are more focused on the surface issues of the illness.
  • Labeling a mental illness as a “spiritual issue” only is not helpful and it can be detrimental.
  • Some manic episodes can appear to be signs of devotion or sacrifice.
  • Social support and community in the local church is important for personal spiritual growth.
  • Be realistic about how much spiritual growth or progress is to be expected of loved ones dealing with mental illness.
  • In most cases, the illness needs stabilizing before spiritual growth will take place.
  • Strong faith does not make a mental illness go away. People who deal with mental illness tend to be more honest about their relationship with God.
  • Before sharing their illness with others, it is important for the individual to feel they are in a safe church or group.
  • Unhealthy faith expressions can actually be a symptom of mental illness. Look for behaviors outside the norm of the group.

Tools Recommended by Mental Health Experts

  • Education was the most commonly mentioned needed resource.
  • Individuals, families, churches, pastors all need clarity on
    • The basics of mental illness.
    • Signs of what to look for.
    • Knowing how to respond if they suspect someone has a mental illness.
    • Ways to be supportive without being overwhelmed.

For discussion about limitations of the term “mental illness” you can read The Problem with “Mental Illness” and Double Dangers: Maximizing and Minimizing Mental Illness.

  • Derrick Johnson

    Thank you for this Dr Murray I have been looking forward to the results of this study since you first spoke of it.

  • Richard Billings

    Thank you, Dr. Murray. I have suffered from depression for most of my adult life and the guilt and shame can be overwhelming at times. My wife has been wonderful and we’ll be celebrating our 33rd wedding anniversary in October. The Lord has been my deepest consolation because he was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief (sickness).

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