Amy, tell me about yourself…
Right now I’m self-employed, so what is my position? It depends on the day. I’m a coach, so about half my time is coaching the other is writing/speaking…I have a couple books out and I have another coming out in February and I do some freelance writing/editing as well, and then I speak. (The amount of speaking depends on the time of year.) Coaching is the other half.
Reasons For Writing Troubled Minds
You wrote the award winning book, Troubled Minds. Can you tell us what drove you to write this book on mental illness and the church?
My dad was a pastor for 10 years while I was growing up. [It] was a formative experience for me and I have a passion for the church, and believe in the church’s ministry. On the other side, my mom has a serious mental illness, schizophrenia. Those two things really came together for me in writing this book and in the speaking that I do and other things I do around this topic.
There wasn’t much out there that was written from the perspective of personal experience. I wanted to share from that perspective from someone who knows what it’s like to live and love a person with mental illness and to be apart of the church at the same time. Until you share your story, you begin to discover just how many people have this in common with you. People come alongside you and raise their hands and say, “Me too.”
How To Get Help In the Church
What is the best way to address mental illness in the church if I’m the one struggling with it? Who do I talk to first?
Everybody’s situation is different, and different churches…respond differently. I talk to people who say…if they look for help from a church, they’re afraid they’ll be asked to leave, they’ll be taken out of ministry positions, and not have the opportunity to serve. They’re afraid of all these consequences, and I can’t tell them that they’re wrong…because I hear many stories where people do have those experiences in churches. There are places where it’s not safe to speak up, but at the same time it’s not really safe to hide either.
It’s really impossible to get the help you need if you don’t ever tell anyone you need help. And that can be a very scary thing to do, but it requires…a kind of brave here that can be very difficult for people and feel impossible. Yet if you are able to find that kind of courage and share you story, or just your experience, or your need, then in most cases somebody will be willing to come alongside you and try to help you, even if they don’t understand the best way to do that.
Find A Safe Person
In some cases people won’t have that kind of response and that’s when you know you need to go somewhere else. That’s one way to find out whether those resources are in your churches, is by speaking up. I always encourage people to think about who they want to open up to. It doesn’t have to be the senior pastor of your church. It doesn’t have to be even the person you think has the most power to help you. I encourage people to share with the person who feels the safest and that might just be the person who’s sitting next to them on a pew on Sunday morning. Someone who demonstrates they’re a caring person, and is willing to listen. The person who feels safest to open up to is a place to start. If they are a safe person they’ll give you courage and probably be willing to help come alongside you, advocate for you, and help connect you with people who are able to help.
Don’t Forget Families
When I did a survey that I published the results in Trouble Minds, I asked a lot of questions of pastors and church leaders and what happens around mental health challenges. One of the things among many statistics I discovered…only 56% reached out to the families of those with mental illness in their own congregation. When they became aware that someone in their church was affected by a mental health problem…a lot of times people become very focused on the person who’s having the mental health struggle and…forget that there’s a family who’s most likely…affected by this mental health problem. That family may or may not be closely involved in this person’s life, but in many cases they are. They are struggling …to navigate the mental healthcare system and have a lot of spiritual questions and may be walking through a spiritual crisis as well…..asking questions themselves.
A Self-Discovered Journey
In some cases, the person having symptoms of mental illness don’t understand they have an issue. For some people that’s a journey to get to where they understand, “This is something I need help with in my life.” But chances are someone who loves them is aware of it and understands there is a problem. So family members need love and support too. I encourage them to seek out safe people they can share with and to do so in a way that invites people into their story. That sometimes can be hard to do, because when we’re in crisis sometimes we can only handle our own emotional needs and become self focused.
Invite Others Into Your Story
The more we can invite people into our stories instead of just kind of pushing our story out to them, the more likely we are to get a positive and curious response…”How can we help? What can we do?” I think it’s less likely to overwhelm people to feel attacked or blamed for the problem. Sometimes it’s not possible to manage those emotions. I encourage people to ask for help – to do that they need to think through, “What do I need? Do I just need someone to listen to me? Do we need support? Do I need someone to take care of the kids? Give us meals? Give us rides or something like that? Do I just need someone to help me answer these questions about God that are coming up for me because of what I’m experiencing in my family?”
I think the more people can think those things through the better prepared they will be to actually articulate what they need. Sometimes people really are willing to help they just have no idea [where to start].
Do you think people with mental illness are harder to be around and love than people with a physical illness?
People in general tend to be afraid of what they don’t understand and we have certain expectations. And it’s not inappropriate to have expectations for the way people behave in public, in general. When you’re around someone who is not behaving up to expectation of what’s appropriate in that setting, it can be hard to understand what’s going on with that person. How would I possibly approach them? Or if someone is just not making sense, or they seem they’re highly agitated, it can very quickly make people feel like they’re in over their heads, i.e. I have no idea how to relate to a person. I don’t understand … why they’re behaving this way. At the same time I think there’s a certain level to which think people behavior may elicit that type of reaction, [though] I think part of that also comes from our media, movies and TV. The ways that mental illness can be portrayed commonly can foster this sense of fear for a lot of people automatically. I’m going to have a fearful reaction to a person behaving in an odd manner just because of all the things I’ve seen on TV. Or, all the things I’ve seen of the news that automatically associate — like violence – people with mental illness.
Rethinking Our Approach
If I stop to think about it, even if they’re saying things that don’t quite make sense or express emotions that may be kind of weird or off, that’s not necessarily an inherently scary thing. It might be odd, it might be hard to understand, [but] it doesn’t have to be scary. I think if we stop to realize sometimes, Wait, there’s not really a good reason for me to be afraid right now, maybe this is coming from assumptions on what I’ve seen in the media and this person in front of me isn’t trying to hurt anyone – their brains aren’t quite working right. That takes mental discipline to do that and challenging our own emotions and reactions. It’s not easy, when people are behaving in ways that aren’t normal. It generally doesn’t draw you to that person.
Practical Ways To Treat The Mentally Ill
How can we go about being a loving church without just passing them off to a trained professional and not “wash our hands of it”?
It’s interesting to me how so often we overlook ways we already know how to help people in ways where when it comes to other forms of crisis, i.e. somebody in your church has been hospitalized from a car accident, or because they have some kind of illness or injury that requires a hospital stay. Generally, people don’t ask themselves this because they already know [the answer]. When it’s a mental health crisis, they think of mental health problems as not being capable to help with. But all these things we do for other people as a routine matter, we can do generally speaking for those dealing with mental health problems as well.
How To Know If You Should Help
Obviously there are some people that want to keep their case private, which can be the case with other illnesses too…but there’s only one way to find out. Well no, two [ways]. One is to ask, and two is to show up and see what happens. I think most people would be very welcoming and very glad to get a visit from a friend when they’re in the hospital, but we just so often assume that a behavioral health hospital is a hospital where we can’t go visit. Or, assume that the person wouldn’t want us to acknowledge what they’re living with or going through when that might be the thing they need most. So those practical things are really important and I’m not going to say they’re easy, but they’re easy things to think of.
The Roles Of Church vs. The Roles of Doctors
Another thing is recognizing again that yes, there is a role for mental health professionals to play, and in most cases it’s not the same role the church optimally plays. We don’t need churches out there trying to cure mental illness and in some cases that happens. People get very hurt and in some cases their lives are in danger. At the same time that a lot of mental health professionals do not provide – medication doesn’t answer questions like “Why does God feel so far from me?” or “Why did this happen to a person I love?” Psychiatrists are not there to be your best friend, counselors aren’t there to take care of your kids and make sure your lawn gets mowed, and support groups aren’t intended to be your only source of friendship.
The Bottom Line
We can provide a loving community, or relationship, where we don’t back away when they’re struggling, where we draw closer around them, [giving] spiritual care so that people feel like they have somewhere to go when questions come up when mental health problems strike. Assure people, not only in our words, but in our actions, that God hasn’t abandoned them. He still loves them, and we do too. That can go a long way.