The Silent Problem in Our Pews
by Timothy Mulder
The church generally does not like to talk about mental illness. As a result, a stigma surrounds those who struggle with mental illness. Those with mental illness often prefer to suffer in silence rather than discuss it. Additionally, as I suspect, most people in our pews are simply unaware of the scope and depth of the problem of mental illness. Regardless of the reason for failure to minister to those with mental illness, the fact remains that the church has, for the most part, failed miserably in this area. After all, when was the last time your church brought up mental illness in the pastoral prayer?
One in five people in the United States has a mental illness. Depression alone accounts for half of that. Statistically, in a church of one hundred people, twenty will have a diagnosed mental illness, and fifteen more, such as friends and family, will be personally impacted by it. Depression and bipolar disorder are among the top ten most debilitating illnesses globally.[i] Bipolar disorder and depressive diseases influence the lives of millions of people. They affect those diagnosed and their families, friends, coworkers, and people with whom they interact. Mental illness is not kind to those who suffer from it, nor to those who must live with those who have it.[ii] One-third of your church’s members are affected by mental illness.
We cannot imagine someone with cancer or heart disease going five to ten years without treatment, yet it happens all the time to those with mental illness. These folks suffer in our schools, workplaces, homes, and churches. Two-thirds of those with bipolar disorder remain untreated! The sad fact is that without adequate treatment, mental illnesses often worsen. Right now, people in our pews are suffering, many silently, from mental illness. If we, as the body of Christ, do not help them, we fail in Jesus’s command to love our neighbors as ourselves.
The church has a poor track record when it comes to mental illness. We advise those who are depressed to “just be happy” or “just trust in Jesus.” Worse yet, are those churches that encourage their members to stop taking their psychotropic medications and ask God to heal them. And yet, those same churches would never tell someone with cancer to stop undergoing chemotherapy and just ask God to heal them. They would not tell someone with a broken leg to stop seeking medical treatment and “just walk on it.” And yet, this is what happens. Says Susan Gregg-Schroeder, coordinator of Mental Health Ministries, “I’ve gone to funerals of people who were told to just pray to Jesus and stop taking their medications.”[iii]
Mental illnesses bring various dangers to the individual, including personal problems such as unemployment, financial struggles, homelessness, and broken relationships. People with mental illnesses also have a considerably higher risk of substance abuse. While 13 percent of Americans struggle with alcohol addiction and another 10 percent struggle with drug addiction, 60 percent of those with depression or bipolar disorder struggle with some form of substance abuse. If your church has five individuals with bipolar disorder, three of those people struggle with alcohol or drug addiction. We do not like to consider this when we look around our churches on Sunday morning and see our fellow believers. By far, however, the most severe danger they face is suicide.
Those with mental illness also have a considerably higher rate of suicide than the general population and are more likely to commit suicide than individuals in any other psychiatric or medical risk group. Twenty to twenty-five percent of those diagnosed and treated for bipolar disorder will die by suicide.[iv] The suicide rate is even higher for those who remain untreated. Seventy percent of all suicides are related to depression.[v] According to Dr. Frederick Goodwin and Dr. Kay Jamison, the presence of depression and bipolar disorder is the most critical risk factor for completed suicide.[vi] I cannot overemphasize enough the lethal nature of these illnesses. Bipolar disorder and depression are the deadliest forms of mental illness. Says Dr. Jamison, “Suicide, for many who suffer from untreated manic-depressive illness, is as much “wired” into the disease as myocardial infarction is for those who have occluded coronary arteries.”[vii]
The good news is that bipolar disorder and depression are highly treatable. The most effective treatment is both medication and counseling. Utilizing only one of these may benefit those struggling with mental illness; however, combined therapy is preferential. Kay Jamison states, “Counseling alone, without medication, is considered to be malpractice.”[viii] Treatment of bipolar disorder and depression with a combination of medicine and counseling results in significantly better outcomes.[ix] This runs contrary to the beliefs of many in the church that all individuals with bipolar disorder and depression should be treated with counseling alone. Medications serve to treat genetic and biological factors. Counseling helps to treat lifestyle and spiritual elements. Therefore, counseling is a critical component in treating bipolar disorder and depression. This is where the church can enter the picture.
Why should we minister to those with mental illness? Studies show that those with mental illnesses fare considerably better if they are part of a religious community. According to a Duke University Medical Center study that examined one thousand patients who suffered from depression, those with a “strong, intrinsic, religious belief … do better.”[x] A study by Lynda Powell showed that those involved in a religious community tend to live longer than those not.[xi] These facts alone should encourage those in the church to reach out to the mentally ill.
The church is uniquely positioned to serve those who have a mental illness. If we look at the roles of those in the church as listed in 1 Corinthians 12:28, we read that three are “healing, helping, and guiding.” This is what those with mental illness need most from the church. They need fellow Christians to walk alongside them to guide them and help them through the healing process. Jesus commands us to do this in Matthew 25:40, when He tells his disciples: “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” Serving our brothers and sisters with mental illness is the same as serving Jesus Christ. It is not optional; it is what Jesus commanded us to do.
For a more in-depth look at ministering to those with mental illness, check out my book, Suffering in Silence.
Timothy Mulder, MBA, MDiv, has served in the church for over 30 years. He is married to Michelle, and they have five children and five grandchildren, as well as a Shih Tzu named Sammy. He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder over 20 years ago and has learned everything he can about the disease to help others who have mental illness. Learn more at www.timothymulder.com.
[i] https://www.ocduk.org/ocd/world-health-organisation/ Accessed July 7, 2022
[ii] Kay Redfield Jamison, Night Falls Fast. (New York: Vintage, 1999), 294.
[iii] Lauren Cahoon, “Will God Get You Out of Your Depression?” (ABC News, March 19, 2008) https://abcnews.go.com/Health/MindMoodNews/story?id=4454786, accessed July 5, 2022.
[iv] Kay Redfield Jamison, Touched with Fire: Manic Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament (New York: The Free Press, 1993), 41.
[v] Marc Etkind, Or Not to Be (New York: Riverhead, 1997), 63.
[vi] Frederick K. Goodwin and Kay Redfield Jamison, Manic Depressive Illness (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 7.
[vii] Jamison, Touched, 42.
[viii] Jamison, Touched, 7.
[ix] Ellen Frank, Treating Bipolar Disorder (London: Guilford Press, 2005), 33.
[x] Lauren Cahoon, “Will God Get You Out of Your Depression?” (ABC News, March 19, 2008) https://abcnews.go.com/Health/MindMoodNews/story?id=4454786, accessed July 5, 2022.
[xi] Lynda H. Powell, et al., “Religion and Spirituality: Linkages to Physical Health,” American Psychologist, January 2003, 36–52.