Churches stand on the front lines in battle of mental health

A number of years ago, Dear Husband and I went to Mass at a downtown Chicago parish. It was Saturday evening, and the church was maybe about half full. During the homily, a mentally unstable man, disheveled and dirty, came in and started yelling. He wasn't making any sense.

The priest paused from the homily and asked the man to quiet down. When he didn't, the priest gestured, and several ushers escorted the man out. I suppose it happened often enough in this big-city parish.

When I went to the March For Life awhile back, I was sitting in the back of the Basilica in Washington, D.C. waiting for the others in my group. A man sat down next to me, asked me a question and then launched into a monologue that included aliens, saints, spaceships and a conglomerate of other odd thoughts. He was genial, but clearly not "all there."

My own daughter serves as an altar server and works in our church nursery. She's bipolar.

I struggle with anxiety and depression. It's made me hide from choir practice, struggle with cantoring and want to crawl under a pew.

Church is for the mentally-ill.

Lacey Cooke gets this. She knows our faith communities are one place many people turn to when they face illness, mental or physical. It's a place where everyone should feel safe and welcome, even if they have a mental illness. So how are we doing?

Faith communities often over-spiritualize mental illness, said Dr. Stanford. Yet while every illness may have a spiritual element, mental illness is a product of biological and environmental factors. Patients cannot reason or pray their way out of these complex diseases.

Part of better care involves breaking down the prevailing stigmas. Those suffering are often hesitant to seek help, fearing that people will think they’re crazy if they see a therapist. Even in secular communities, people with mental illness are either considered weak or are feared. Mass shootings receive a lot of attention in the media, yet Dr. Stanford says we need to focus more on the mental health aspect of these tragedies — at least half of the shooters were not receiving the mental care they needed.

Dr. Stanford says churches need to give people tools to care for one another. “Recovery is a process,” says Dr. Stanford; it’s not as simple as popping a pill. Instead of days or weeks, families and friends must be prepared to provide support for months or years.

Churches can help break down the stigma by creating an atmosphere where people feel free to talk about mental illness and those suffering feel accepted. He suggests that pastors deliver a sermon on the topic once or twice a year, and pray openly about the issue. As people give testimonies about overcoming addiction, people should give testimonies about their process of working through a mental illness.

It's a good article - share it with your pastor.

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