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It began as a friendly family game of Monopoly. I informed my son that he had landed on Park Place. His mind stuck on the words and started to spin: “Park Place, Park Place. . .” Over and over he repeated the words. I should have remembered—hard consonants at the beginnings of words often get stuck in his mind—and an obsessive-compulsive mind is one of the symptoms of autism. I’m not sure at what moment his mood changed, but his anger turned from himself to me—after all, I was the one who had said the phrase that was now bombarding his brain. He called me rude and other names. The game was over. In those moments, it is difficult for me to know what to do. They remind me that the fall did not just corrupt our bodies but our minds as well. When did my son cross the line into sin—or did he? I can’t discipline or teach the obsessiveness away. Yet, he is responsible for how he responds during these moments. How should a parent react? I became frustrated and simply wished we had not even played the game. It would have been easier to avoid the situation by not engaging my son.
The church finds itself in the same sort of dilemma when dealing with those suffering from mental illness. Although they have spiritual roots as well, mental illnesses are collections of behaviors that are caused, at least partially, by the mind and the complex chemical reactions in the nervous system. Dealing with the illness can become messy, so we often want to discount the idea altogether and attempt to “re-teach” or discipline away the behaviors of those who suffer with these afflictions. A problem exists. During a twelve-month period, according to a National Institute of Mental Health study, slightly more than one-quarter of the U.S. adult population meets the criteria for a diagnosis of one or more mental disorders. About 6 percent of the population in any twelve-month period suffers from “seriously debilitating mental disorders.”
We can debate the terminology, but we must acknowledge the legitimacy of mental illness. Some find it much more palatable for these issues to be either strictly medical or spiritual; however, on this side of heaven, there may not be a scalpel sharp enough to separate spiritual/psychological reasons for behavior from medical/physiological reasons for behavior. We are fearfully and wonderfully made. Our bodies respond to our minds and vice versa.
To engage is to address the topic of mental illness publicly. Twenty-five percent of all individuals will have a depressive episode during their lifetime—this should be addressed during teaching and church programs. It is sometimes easier to come into the church and admit a crime than to carry the stigma of chronic depression, schizophrenia, or another mental disorder. In surveys, the church has about the same rate of use of psychotropic medications as the general population. We are not addressing here the possible overuse of prescription drugs or the tendency to too quickly label and diagnose individuals, which are important issues. The point is that we do not have the option to ignore and not engage those who suffer from mental illness.
We have all “sinned against sinners.” The church is often quick to reach out and serve those suffering from physical sickness, as it should. This is true even if some of our sickness is caused by our own behavior. Poor health habits, lack of exercise, and obesity are all lifestyle issues that contribute to our health. The church does not discriminate and say, “You were overweight for the last fifteen years, so we will not visit you in the hospital during your heart surgery.” As believers, we are often curious about the factors that may have contributed to the illness, but we are called to be humble and kind. We need humble curiosity when dealing with those afflicted with mental illness.
Becoming aware of your own “mental health” is an important part of the process of humble curiosity. The Emotionally Healthy Church: A Strategy for Discipleship That Actually Changes Lives by Peter Scazzero and Warren Bird suggests that just like a team takes on the personality of its coach, a church develops some traits of its shepherd. The emotional health of the pastor and leaders of the church will impact the congregation. Are you chronically sad or tired? Are you becoming stuck in patterns of behavior that surprise you? Humble curiosity begins with ourselves.
GRACE AND SUPPORT
Lastly, the church must be a place of hope and refuge for these individuals, not a place of shame and stigma. These individuals tend to feel alone and unwanted. Let our churches become places that offer hope. Often individuals indicate that church is a place where they hide their addictions and struggles, yet it must become a place of repentance and growth. Disorders should not be celebrated, yet people suffering from mental illness can and should be encouraged, accepted, challenged, and loved within the body of Christ.
I think I may try another game of Monopoly tonight with my son even if it gets me in trouble.