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The epidemic in our midst: Walking alongside those living with mental illness

I found myself, in February, being the pastoral presence on a psychiatric ward. There’s a profound difficulty of inhabiting that space. Some in that space are at such a low point that they’re hospitalized in order to protect themselves from themselves. Many are, in various degrees, detached from reality. One woman, Sofia*, ran from one hall to the next proclaiming that she was pregnant with Satan’s baby. Another declared her immense fortune and shared ownership of Google and Apple. To say that I stood in awe of the social workers, doctors, and nurses that interact with and care for the patients daily would be an understatement.

The National Institute of Health reports that more than one in five Americans live with some form of mental illness. Additionally, 5.5% of Americans suffer with a serious mental health disorder. The Social Security Administration includes a range of mental health disorders as qualifiers for disability, including major depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. There is an epidemic in our midst without an easy cure (if one exists). The late Michael Gerson said in reference to his own battle with depression, “There is no way to will yourself out of this disease, any more than to will yourself out of tuberculosis.”

The church has historically done a good job of walking alongside and ministering to persons experiencing physical ailments. We understand that bones break, pneumonia strikes, the body turns in on itself and suddenly there is a cancer diagnosis. But how do you minister to someone who may not even realize that something is wrong? Furthermore, how do you keep ministering to someone suffering from a long-term psychiatric condition? We’re really good at acute crisis response. Within hours of a death, a Meal Train has been organized to keep that family fed in the midst of their sorrow. How do you walk alongside someone with chronic, treatment-resistant depression?

One in five Americans live with some form of mental illness. Additionally, 5.5% of Americans suffer with a serious mental health disorder. There is an epidemic in our midst without an easy cure (if one exists).

May is Mental Health Awareness Month and, given that one in five congregants will experience some degree of a mental health crisis, it is worth examining how the church responds to it. Among other suggestions, I propose that we stop treating mental health as a taboo topic. It is a medical disorder in the same way that diabetes and dementia are. No one shies away from asking for a prayer request for a physical illness, but (at least at our church), there is rarely a prayer request for someone suffering from a manic episode. Additionally, we should recognize that while some mental health disorders are linked to concrete events, such as depression following the death of a loved one, many just aren’t. They are insidious chemical imbalances that have no rhyme or reason. Our language for praying for a cure might better be replaced with language of praying for relief of symptoms.

I met a man named John* in February. He was very concerned about the state of his soul. He had done a lot of bad things in his life and was worried that no matter how many times he prayed to God, his soul would never be pure enough to see the face of God. John was also in a manic state, a state where nothing quite makes sense. No matter how many times I told him that God wipes the slate clean, he wouldn’t believe me. It was disheartening to watch someone suffer that agony over and over. Equally disheartening was knowing that he would go in and out of psychosis for the entirety of his life. I found myself overwhelmed on his behalf. But the best I could do was to sit with him, pray with him, and recognize that he needed the care and support of a church community – and one that would recognize the cyclical nature of his life. My prayer for this month is not that we simply acknowledge the epidemic of mental health disorders, but that we would recognize that many are chronic and not curable, and that we would learn to better walk alongside those living with mental illness.

 *Names have been changed

Dr. Claire Hein Blanton is an ordained Baptist minister in Houston, Texas. She received PhD in systematic theology and ethics from the University of Aberdeen.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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