Are church leaders prepared for the mentally ill?
The church is often met with discomfort when asked to assist the mentally ill. Personally, the church has upset my opinion of those in spiritual leadership, as well as in their attitude towards church members who suffer or who have suffered from any form of mental illness.
In the article “Sexual Orientation, Mental Health, Gender, and Spirituality: Prejudicial Attitudes and Social Influence in Faith Communities,” authors Kelly McLeland and Geoffrey W. Sutton say that tradition preserves the myth that one should “love the sinner but hate the sin,” and this is a similar approach to the relationship between faculty and students, or between a pastor and a member of the congregation.
However, Steve Sullivan co-authors an article entitled, “The Pew Versus the Couch: Relationship Between Mental Health and Faith Communities and Lessons Learned from a VA/Clergy Partnership Project,” in which he says Christians have a lack of understanding towards those who endure any sort of mentally debilitating condition. Sullivan concludes that “many in the church community perceived the rise of psychiatry and psychology as a direct threat to the Biblical understanding of the human condition.”
Furthermore, in “Adolescent Mental Health: The Role of Youth and College Pastors,” William Hunter and Matthew Stanford say, “Religion and spirituality are important domains within identity formation, as religious/spiritual exploration is highly personal and often related to self-worth.” However, being inflicted with a mental illness serves as an immense predator for all of its prey, and believers often feel that an internal struggle interferes “with a patient’s religious/spiritual beliefs or faith community,” which may then cause the patient to see the two as a mutually exclusive pair.
I currently continue to suffer from bouts of severe anxiety and depression, and have dealt with forms of eating disorders. In the past, the way that the church has left me to deal with my struggles has not been helpful, despite eyes of pity and hearts that try too hard to reach out. A lot of times, the members of Christ’s body want an immediate fix, but the instantaneous bandage of asking questions and applying sympathy to emotional wounds is either denied or disrespected by the recipient.
On one hand, it is outrageous that I would “ignore [my] Christian values and beliefs” as soon as my mental health debilitates, but on the other hand, it is totally understandable because “clergy are untrained in how to address many of the mental health needs of their parishioners,” Steve Sullivan says in “The Pew Versus The Couch.”
Hunter and Stafford cite a study done in 2008 that surveyed pastors and found that 71 percent of them did not feel equipped to recognize mental illness even though 73 percent claimed to have some training in that area.
Pity is the first thing that onlookers attempt to apply to my mental health, and as much as I appreciate the effort, it is not what will fix me. Without proper training, it is difficult, not to mention terrifying, to be in a position of leadership and to feel at a loss of words when approached by someone who suffers from a mental illness. Through receiving training from professionals, faculty and pastors would be able to help relinquish broken hearts and scars because of the drought that mental illness brings.