Amy Simpson’s article, “Supporting Families Living with Mental Illness,” resonates deeply with me. Her story speaks of a journey that many walk in silence – a journey with which I am all too familiar. I am ordained in the Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC), and while I do not currently serve in a pastoral position, I do have a ministry. My family’s journey with our child who is being treated for Bipolar Disorder has opened my eyes to the need for educating and equipping the local congregation to care for others walking our journey.
Recently, I had the privilege of leading a workshop at the ECC Central Conference Women’s Spring Celebration for women with children affected by mental illness or other challenges. The fact that the room was packed spoke volumes. That room became a place of refuge and belonging. Common experiences shared included isolation, exhaustion, and the need for community – specifically for Christian community. Simpson’s call to action to the church to support families affected by mental illness matches my own experiences as a parent and as part of the body of Christ. I offer here some practical suggestions for how the local church can support families struggling with mental illness.
- Offer compassion. During any given Sunday morning, the parents are faced with no shortage of awkward situations involving the affected individual, from physical and emotional confrontations to withdrawal. For parents of children struggling in the areas of mental health, engagement in a public venue brings a cringe factor along with a host of questions. How will other children be affected if my child utters a socially inappropriatecomment? Will I be judged about my parenting skills? How will others perceive my child or sibling? Simple explanations to others (while being sensitive to confidentiality), modeling unconditional love, and communicating with the parents/family go a long way.
- Educate. Become aware of organizations that provide information about various mental health conditions. Ministry staff may wonder, How do I care for this person and their family? How do I help educate the congregation without drawing negative attention to the individual or family members? Since symptoms fall on a large spectrum, individuals have different needs. Some churches have a Sunday school class that caters to children with special concerns. We give practical suggestions to teachers when they encounter cues indicating frustration or anger.
- Understand the impact on the entire family. As Simpson notes, “behind every person with mental illness is a family that has been impacted – perhaps even devastated – by that illness” (p. 42). Time, energy, and resources are often drastically reduced in caring for the affected individual. Siblings may feel neglected. One idea that has been welcoming to us is when families invite our other children to play at their homes. It’s a simple act that benefits everyone and reminds the siblings that they too are special. Any gesture that can ease tension is a gift to the family.
A note on a theology of suffering. Simpson cautions against a theology of suffering that teaches that “life should be easy and happy” (p. 49). While I agree with her, I would want to warn against the opposite error that views medication and other treatment as a diversion from embracing the reality of suffering. I know persons with mental illness who have refused medication because they regard their illness as a “cross to bear” – a view not generally held by those suffering from diabetes or heart conditions. In particular, parents of children with mental health issues may struggle with embracing the use of medication to help their child. Further complicating the decision with a misguided theology of suffering is not helpful. I believe God has gifted individuals to develop medications that help restore brain processes and give those affected a better quality of life.
The beauty of the Christian community is that we are made better by growing together. We gain a bigger picture of God’s character through our interactions with each other. My daughter loves and is effective in helping in certain tasks. When she was younger, she placed communion cups in trays. She also helps prepare the snacks (and I might add enjoys being creative in this task) for our Café that follows our Sunday worship service. Children crave purpose. Involvement affirms the truth that they are an important part of the community. The Apostle Paul writes, “Therefore encourage one another and build each other up” (1 Thessalonians 5:11). As Simpson states, “Helping people with mental illness is part of the church’s mission and calling. This is true not only for church leaders, but also every Christian. We are responsible for our response to people in need” (p. 48).
Stephanie Thompson is a graduate of North Park Theological Seminary and an ordained pastor of the Evangelical Covenant Church. Stephanie attends Hope Covenant Church in Orland Park, Illinois, with her husband Scott and their three children. She has a passion for encouraging and empowering people toward finding purpose, healing, and identity through the Holy Spirit as they pursue life in an imperfect world. Stephanie holds a special desire to help families journeying with a child with a medical/mental illness. A speaker at various venues, she blogs at http://stephaniejthompson.com/ and can be followed on Twitter @s2thomp.