If you are a church leader or ever have been, you are surely aware of seriously mentally ill neighbors who have come through our doors. Sometimes they are strangers asking for money. Sometimes they are members projecting pathologies. Sometimes they are staff people who have a God complex. Often they are fine unless they don't take their meds.I am thankful that it did come up in seminary for me. In fact, my time at Eden helped me discover how much of a blindspot mental illness is for many of our churches. It may be out of ignorance, or avoidance, or in the name of maintaining "church basement niceness," or what have you. At any rate, mental illness affects the vast majority of people, whether it is we ourselves or a loved one who is suffering.
Seminaries need to teach about this kind of thing. Case studies on the homeless woman who wants to camp on church property to help locate the tunnels under our building that the government is using to spy on us. Or the church member who believes that the choir is out to get him. Or the officer who hears voices tell him that he is really the pastor and he's been called by God to remove the professional minister.
This is not the kind of thing that came up in seminary.
The church could do much more to minister to the mentally ill, but it would involve many necessary precautions. The main one would be knowing when to refer to professionals while maintaining a relationship in order to care for their spiritual needs and communicating that they are fearfully and wonderfully made by a loving God, who has not abandoned them.
But the first step is knowing how much of a problem mental illness is, and knowing that with every passing year there is seemingly less support for it economically, among other things.
This week is Mental Illness Awareness Week:
In 1990, the U.S. Congress established the first week of October as "Mental Illness Awareness Week" (MIAW) in recognition of NAMI's efforts to raise mental illness awareness. Since 1990, mental health advocates across the country have joined together during the first week of October to celebrate.The website for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) is one excellent resource for education and networking.
MIAW is NAMI's premiere public awareness and public education campaign and link NAMI's 1,100+ local affiliates across the country.
MIAW has become a tradition in NAMI. It presents an opportunity for all three levels of NAMI — national, state and local — to work together in communities across the country to achieve the NAMI mission through outreach, education and advocacy.
The book In the Shadow of Our Steeples, which helped make me more aware of these issues to begin with, is an excellent introduction to how the church may minister to those with mental illness.
May this be a week of awareness, education, and of breaking down barriers that prevent those with mental illness from experiencing grace and peace.