A Church for Troubled Minds

by Amy Simpson

Lives affected by mental illness, whether the afflicted or their families, are typically marked by isolation. Those suffering from the effects of mental illness desperately need to experience the love and empathy of their fellow human beings and to know that their Creator has not abandoned them, but many reach out and are shocked to touch the church’s painfully cold shoulder. Others fear the church’s rejection enough to hide their struggles and not risk exposure at all.

mental illness Elisabetta Stoinich iStock (sm)

Illustration by Elisabetta Stoinich / iStockphoto.com

But some churches are leading by example with intentional ministries to people affected by mental illness.

Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in Northern California founded the HELP (Hope, Encouragement, Love, Prayer) Mental Health Support Ministry in 1999. The weekly meeting is open to anyone affected by mental illness, both people with illness (copers) and their families and others who support them (supporters). Initially the group was only for loved ones of people with mental illness; when they opened the group to those who themselves were ill, it expanded dramatically and became more dynamic.

Group meetings include a shared meal, discussion or educational speaker, and a brief time of music and worship. Finally, the group divides into small groups of four who go to separate rooms to share their needs and pray for one another.

HELP also hosts an annual conference to educate other churches and equip them to minister to people with mental illness, and it has helped about 10 churches to start their own similar ministry. About half of the people who attend the group’s weekly meetings are from the congregation; the other half are not associated with the church, so this group is reaching out to the community.

Now in their eighties, Fred and Jane Pramann came to HELP in its early days and served as coleaders until 2011. The Pramanns’ interest begain when their son was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at 21. Shocked and confused, they turned to their church for support but didn’t find any. They tried other churches and eventually found their way to Menlo Park and a group of like-minded leaders who were affected by mental illness.

What has made the HELP group so effective? The Pramanns claim the most powerful element has been praying for one another in small groups. “People really feel such a tremendous support in that. Prayer has been the big thing that has made the group successful.”

They also credit another simple practice: reading their group guidelines at every meeting and asking each person present to affirm commitment to these guidelines each week. Developed by the group’s founders, the guidelines state the purpose and expectations of the group. They call for confidentiality, sensitivity, and other simple ways of relating to one another that build trust and openness.

People interested in starting such a group usually ask about disruptions. The Pramanns soothe fears by talking about their own experience. In more than 12 years of ministry, only one person was asked to leave and find the help he needed outside the group. They have had no serious incidents. In fact, they say, “Almost exclusively our copers are a very gentle group of people. Very caring and very loving. It’s just a lot of fun being with these folks and having them be part of us.”

Thanks to this program, people who have come to the church for help have found hope. “We can think of a couple of people who have come to us and said, ‘Well, if it hadn’t been for the group, I wouldn’t be alive today; I would have taken my life.’ And we’ve seen people move from being ready to take their lives to being more stable and able to go on with their lives in a better way and get jobs …. It’s been a tremendous, valuable program for a church to have.”

The Bipolar Support Group ministry of First Presbyterian Church in Winston-Salem, N.C., has ministered to nearly 1,500 people since its inception in 2001. Though the ministry focuses on bipolar disorder, some group members suffer with schizophrenia, clinical depression, and other disorders. They minister to people with diagnosed illness as well as loved ones, with the two groups meeting separately.

The group also works to educate the church about mental health, mobilizing Christian counselors/psychiatrists and presenting to Sunday school classes, men’s and women’s ministries, and in the worship service.

Lead facilitator Bob Mills serves in his professional life as associate vice president of advancement at Wake Forest University.  At age 48, he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder after a history of depression and his first manic episode. After his yearlong journey toward stabilization on medication and a few years of wrestling spiritually with what his illness meant for his theology, he was encouraged by one of his pastors to start the support group and begin to minister to others affected by serious mental illness.

Mills talks about the important role the support group plays: “People want to talk about this stuff. They may not be willing to talk in front of their Sunday school class or their best friends, but they certainly come up to you or send you an e-mail afterward and say, ‘We have this problem, and I really would like some help.’”

Mills wants other churches to “understand that this is the simplest and cheapest of all ministries, because all it takes is broken people who are willing to open up to God and allow him to work through them to heal them and then help them become healers. It costs the church nothing other than whatever power it takes for us to turn on lights for an extra three hours. And what you get in exchange for that is truly amazing. It’s the depth of healing that people receive. And certainly not just the people who have the illness; the loved ones who come are dealing with lots of emotional bondage issues, and pressures that these illnesses bring on relationships are huge. So there’s a lot of healing that goes on.”

New Heights Church in Vancouver, Wash., is home to a mental health support group started by Elaine Tse and Cindy Hannan.  Hannan is married to the senior pastor, who emphasizes mental health in his own ministry and in his training of other church staff. She developed a heart for people with mental illness after her own experience with depression and anxiety and her son’s diagnosis of bipolar disorder.

“While we had wonderful support from elders, staff, family, and friends,” says Hannan, “I still felt alone as I knew no one who was dealing with the same circumstances and feelings.” She was struggling with her own questions, unsure where to begin, when she met Tse, a doctor who had just joined the church-run medical clinic. When Hannan saw Tse’s concern about the silent suffering of so many people with mental illness, she knew she had found the partner she needed to start the support group.

Hannan and Tse believe that “with medication, counseling, and good support, people with mental illness can flourish. They also need to be able to find help, home, and hope within the church.”

Hannan feels that this support group has started a healthy conversation about mental illness in the larger church body. “Mental illness is not an elephant in the room that no one talks about here. It is right out there in the open, just like lots of other challenges people deal with. It communicates that people with mental illness belong in this church, are welcomed and accepted by this church, and can expect the same love and care and support as others in the church.”

Their advice to churches that want to help people with mental illness and their loved ones is that it starts with acknowledging that mental illness is common and treatable and that it strikes both Christians and non-Christians. They also recommend training both pastoral and lay leaders to be aware of and unafraid of mental illnesses: “We all need to know the signs of mental illness, warning signs of a looming crisis, and what resources we as a church and community can offer. At the very least, leaders should know what the larger community offers in terms of crisis lines, mental health clinics, NAMI, counselors, and social services, so that they can point people in a helpful direction.”

To serve as a leader in this church’s mental health support group, a person must have a history of mental illness or must have a relative or a friend with a mental illness. “In this way,” Hannan says, “people who may have at one time been marginalized have a productive place of service for the kingdom of God. We all get to see God use all things for our good. For me, that is payday.”

The mental health ministry at University Presbyterian Church in Seattle, Wash., was founded in 1994 and serves both copers and supporters. The group’s leader, David Zucker, has contact with about 200 people a week in the context of this ministry; he hosts weekly meetings and eight-week internships for people interested in learning about mental health ministry. He also collaborates with other churches, social service organizations, and community mental health agencies on strategies for welcoming people with severe and persistent mental illness.

Shortly after he became a Christian in his mid-twenties, Zucker fell into a deep, clinical depression. The church he attended at the time “initially responded with care, but once they were unable to pray away my agonizing brain disorder, they judged, vilified, and all but threw me out on my ear.” For several years he avoided seeking mental health care, fully believing his church leaders’ claim that psychiatry is anti-Christian.

Zucker eventually found the help he needed, made his way to University Presbyterian, and worked as a manager for a faith-based residential community for men and women recovering from serious mental illness. “Our residents were getting better and rejoining the world at an astounding rate,” he says. “It was clear to me that the support and accountability of a loving community was the primary reason.” When he had the opportunity to start such a ministry at the church, he was enthusiastic.

Zucker spent his first year volunteering full time but now he is on the church staff, supported by direct donations to the mental health ministry. At first, he was disappointed by the lukewarm response among the church staff and congregation. But soon church members began approaching him secretly, “like Nicodemus in the night, seeking support for their longsuffering family members and themselves. ‘Please don’t tell anyone here that I spoke with you’ became the mantra for these struggling families.”

Within a month, his schedule was packed with stealth meetings, mostly offsite, with families in his church. He soon realized the mental health ministry would be reaching into the congregation as much as reaching out. The individuals and families who have themselves been affected by mental illness make the most effective and caring volunteers in the program, says Zucker.

“It’s a whole lot easier for grassroots movements to get started when they’re seeded and watered by folks at the top,” he says. But “the good news is that even in the absence of leadership buy-in, church-based mental health ministries can thrive, provided someone is willing to do the work autonomously, raise their own support, and risk taking on some of the stigma of the folks they’re supporting. This is certainly not everyone’s cup of tea, but I can say, unequivocally, this is the most meaningful and rewarding work I’ve done in my life.”

Zucker echoes others in his response to his own suffering and his observation of what grappling with mental illness does for a person: “So many of us have discovered, in a supportive community, that what doesn’t kill you really can make you stronger. Through the years, I’ve never met an emotionally mature man or woman of God who has not traveled through a period of great suffering. With God as our touchstone, suffering builds hope and humility.”

Amy Simpson is editor of Christianity Today’s GiftedforLeadership.com and a freelance writer living in Illinois. This column is adapted from her new book, Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church’s MissionUsed by kind permission of InterVarsity Press, PO Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515.

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