Part 2 of Sharon’s wonderful guest post. (Read part 1 here)
The Church and Severe Mental Illness
When Paul wrote to the church at Corinth, he referred to it as the ‘body of Christ’, which had ‘many parts’ (1 Corinthians 12:27,12). He emphasised that every part – or person – in the church body was important:
“On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honourable we treat with special honour.” (1 Corinthians 12:22-23)
This means a lot to me. I have schizoaffective disorder – I am ‘weaker’, and schizoaffective disorder, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia are often stigmatised conditions – ‘less honourable’ in some people’s eyes, but Paul tells me that I am ‘indispensable’ in the church and have ‘special honour’.
Yet church can be hard and at times I feel far from indispensable and honoured.
I can be forgotten: I have spells in hospital when I am too ill to go to church for months. My behaviour at church can be a little strange: I may be over-excitable if I manic, I leave meetings early when I am feeling paranoid, and I withdraw from people if I am overwhelmed by depression. And I do feel stigmatised. It’s hard to tell someone that I have schizoaffective disorder. After all, people have commonly heard news stories about psychotic individuals who have committed crimes. This is understandably frightening, but people with psychosis are actually much more likely to be victims of crime than to be responsible for it.
I believe that I have found an important role in my church, however. I have seen that my openness about my condition and my testimony of God-inspired hope in the midst of severe mental illness has begun to help reduce stigma. It is my prayer that this will make a difference for others who also suffer.
So what about Sarah – how can you help?
Today, Sarah is clearly frightened and acutely unwell. She is suffering from hallucinations and delusions and is in need of professional support. Approach her calmly and gently, ask her if she is okay and what she is experiencing, and find out if she has someone to contact in an emergency. On a Sunday, this is likely to be her GP Out of Hours Service. Offer to help her to get in touch.
This will be easier if you already know Sarah. She is probably usually not so obvious, but – although her hood may be down – she is still likely to be on the margins of church life. Try to be aware of those who have severe mental illness in your congregation (remember that there might be five or six if you have 200 people) and reach out to them when they are not in crisis. Let them tell their stories and help them to stay involved in church activities, for example, by sitting with them or giving a lift to an event.
Pray for Sarah. Be careful if you are praying with her. Using ‘spiritual’ language such as asking God for ‘deliverance’ or to help overcome this ‘stronghold’ in her life may feed into her delusions and make her feel like she is demon-possessed rather than a sick and hurting daughter of the King. Keep it simple and she will appreciate your sensitivity.
Look after her carers. You may know Sarah’s family or other close connections. At a time of crisis like this – when Sarah may well have to be admitted to hospital – they will be feeling the strain. If you can offer a hot meal or to walk their dogs, it will mean a lot. Pray for them too.
Stay in touch during the week. If Sarah is in hospital, her days will be long, and a short visit will break the monotony and remind her that she is loved. If she is at home, she might have visiting nurses, but Christian fellowship is still important, and she will probably be glad to see a familiar face. Perhaps you could share a scripture you have found helpful when you’ve been struggling too (we all have in some way!) – perhaps a lament from Job or David (“How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart?” Psalm 13:2), or encouragement to think of ‘what is noble…right…pure…(and) lovely,’ from Paul (Philippians 8:8).
Learn about mental illness. You are doing this right now! Armed with some understanding, you will be better equipped to help when things get difficult for Sarah or others. For example, the Royal College of Psychiatrists (UK) has excellent online resources to inform you.
When you know more about illnesses like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, you can help to dispel the stigma. Share your knowledge with others and suggest that your pastor or minister runs a special service close to World Mental Health Day (10th October).
If one part is honoured, we all rejoice
Paul tells us that, “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honoured, every part rejoices with it.” (1 Corinthian 12:26)
Thank you for reading this blog and showing that you care about people like Sarah. I hope that you feel enabled to go forward in your journey towards helping those who suffer from severe mental illness. By encouraging them as they grow in Christ, you can foster their unique gifts in ministering to others. I know that I am indebted to those who have done this for me, and that my church body now rejoices in my good times.