Churches & Mental Illnesses: What Role Should Faith Based Groups Play?

(4-19-19) From My Files Friday: I will speaking at a one-day mental health event next Tuesday hosted by ZION Church in Clarion, Pennsylvania, as part of its community awareness ministry. This is only the fourth time in 12 years that I have been invited by a faith based group to tell my family’s story. Minister Trent Kirkland has invited local leaders to join me after my speech to discuss what services are available in their community when someone has a mental break. Please attend if you live in the Clarion area.

Six years ago, I posted this blog about faith and mental illness. I’d love to read your thoughts on my Facebook page about how your church or religious leaders have reacted to you or your loved ones mental illness. For those of you who are fellow Christians, Happy Easter!

“I Realized God Wasn’t Punishing Me:” Talking in Churches About Mental Illnesses  

Joanne Kelly was in church one Sunday when her minister announced during his sermon: “If you are diligent enough in your spiritual practice, you don’t need psychotropic medications.”

Kelly, who has an adult son with a mental illness, was happy that her son had skipped church that day. She confronted the minister after the service.

“What you said was extremely irresponsible,” she scolded.

Getting within an inch of her face and clearly angry, he replied, “When I give a sermon, I am channeling God.”

Joanne never returned to that church. She found a new one. She also got involved in the National Alliance on Mental Illness, serving as the president of both her local Boulder chapter and the state NAMI group. Then she went a step further. Joanne  joined the Rev. Alan Johnson in an effort to educate the clergy about mental illnesses.

Joanne told me last weekend that when families find themselves in a mental health crisis for the first time, a large percentage of them first seek help from a minister. Sadly, many preachers either are misinformed or misguided when it comes to offering advice about serious mental illnesses.

Joanne and Alan invited me to speak at the Colorado University Law School in Boulder, where we had such a large crowd in the 250 seat auditorium that about 70 attendees had to sit in a spill over room and watch on television. After my speech, three local officials talked about mental health services in Boulder. The next morning, I spoke at two services at the First Congregational Church where Alan’s wife, Martie McMane, is the senior pastor.

Both of the church services focused on mental illness, beginning with an exceptional children’s sermon delivered by the Rev. Jason Hays, who talked about his struggles with depression. It was invigorating to participate in a religious service were mental illness was spoken about openly. This was only the second time that a religious based group has invited me to speak. (Jewish Family Services was the first to invite me to talk about the criminalization of persons with mental disorders.) 

How faith based groups address — or don’t address — mental illness has been in the news recently because of the suicide of California megachurch pastor Rick Warren’s son, Matthew, age 27. The Rev. Warren is the author of “The Purpose Driven Life” and The Washington Post published several stories about how Matthew Warren’s suicide has sparked a national conversation among church leaders over whether their beliefs stigmatize those with mental illness.

One such stigmatizing belief is that mental illness is a symptom of spiritual weakness. Some denominations teach that all diseases, sickness and pain is rooted in a world broken by sin. But mental illness — in particular depression —  often is singled out as a sign of moral weakness. Catholicism and Judaism also teach that suicide is immoral.

I don’t generally “preach” at a Sunday church service, but I was thrilled to have that opportunity in Boulder. After the service, several parishioners spoke to me privately, many with tears in their eyes, about their personal struggles with a mental illness or those of their loved ones.

“I felt a great deal of shame until Martie (Rev. McMane) began talking about mental illness in our church,” one member said. “After that, I realized God wasn’t punishing me.”

I have written about the need to fight stigma. Our churches should be at the forefront of that battle.

(First posted 4-15-13)

About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.