Mental illness is a church issue

January 12th, 2017

The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state." These words were once uttered by Civil Rights icon Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His belief was that the church must be the moral compass of the body politic, holding politicians and power brokers accountable. The church must stand up for what's right in the midst of society’s fiercest battles, King would say. As a pastor, I believe it's more important than ever that churches and faith communities speak out about the important issues of the day. Almost fifty years after his death, Martin Luther King Jr.’s words are still prophetic.

Yet as a pastor it's been my experience that for all of the many challenges we face as a nation, there is one issue which many churches often don't want to talk about. It's one of the most pressing issues of our time. It's an issue that affects citizens all over our country. Indeed, it’s an issue which I believe must be discussed by churches if they truly strive to be the conscience of the people. It’s not abortion, same-sex marriage, or another issue related to the “culture war.” It's the issue of mental illness.

At first glance, given all of the issues America faces, this may not seem like an issue of high importance. But the truth is that mental illness is a very real problem in our country, impacting the lives of millions each day. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, approximately one out of four Americans lives with a mental illness that is severe enough to be diagnosed. Not including minors, that adds up to sixty million Americans. And for each person included in that number, there are countless family members and friends who are affected. Family members and friends who help them cope with the challenges of their illness, pray for them, and love them even in the midst of their struggles. Truth be told, virtually everyone is somehow affected by mental illness whether or not they are aware of it.

Beyond the individual lives that are impacted or destroyed by mental illness is the broader societal impact. We lament the epidemic of addiction, violence, and mass incarceration in our society. Even when we disagree with how they can be solved, these are issues that the majority of Americans would agree are not only deeply tragic but also tearing at the very fabric our society. What many don't realize is that central to these problems is the issue of mental illness. Certainly none of these issues can be boiled down to mental illness alone, but mental illness is undeniably a significant contributing factor.

We can talk about policy solutions all we want, but until we actually address the underlying causes of these issues, these problems will continue to plague our society. And make no mistake about it, mental illness has not yet received the political attention needed to drive real systematic change. Indeed, during recessions, one of the first budget items many social service agencies and states around the country cut is support programs for those with mental illness.

While we may admit that mental illness is a significant problem for many individuals and our society as a whole, we live in such a fast-paced culture that most of us can't even take a break to take care of our own mental health. Many of us are overburdened, overwhelmed, and exhausted. The majority of us simply turn to social media, binge-watching Netflix, or other distractions to deal with the challenges of daily life. But that is not an antidote for the stress and pressure of our high-octane culture. If we really want to get serious about this issue, it must begin not in the realm of abstraction but with us as individuals.

That's why I believe churches and other faith communities must step up. It is in communities of faith that people come to seek some form of healing and wholeness. And it is in such settings that I believe these issues can be discussed in healthy ways. Yet in most places of worship, discussions around mental illness are noticeably absent. Clergy and lay people have no problem praying for those who may have a physical challenge, such as a bad back, heart disease, or the stomach flu, but those who are depressed, anxious or in the grips of another mental illness are rarely mentioned. Moreover, though more than eighty percent of pastors (1) say they know multiple people in their congregation who struggle with mental illness, less than thirteen percent say it's discussed in an open, honest way.

I agree with Martin Luther King Jr. that churches must be the conscience of the people. And therefore I am making a plea for more churches and faith communities of all kinds to talk honestly about an issue which is one of unspoken challenges in our society. There is still a stigma preventing many from seeking help or getting the resources they need. And there is certainly no critical mass of public pressure to create sustainable change at the political level around providing more support for those struggling with mental illness.

I hope more clergy and lay people will take the time to learn about what life is like for those who get up each day with these particular struggles. I hope they think seriously about how they can help those dealing with these challenges. And, most importantly, I hope they talk about this issue openly. Because there are millions of people who need this conversation. And there is a country that must have this conversation.

1. Amy Simpson, Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church's Mission (InterVarsity Press; 2013), 142.

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