The Church and the Perception of Mental Illness



Church mental health

There are many illnesses classified as mental illness. This article is not about the specific types of mental illness. It is about how mental illness is perceived and the role of the church in that perception.

A mental illness affects an individual’s ability to think, feel and relate to others. Just like other illnesses, mental illnesses vary in seriousness and in treatment. Mental illness affects children and adults. Mental illness is treatable. What does the church have to do with mental illness? The answer is simple, what the church supports, its constituents support. Thus, the church can play a vital role in changing people’s perception on mental illness, thus causing more people to seek treatment.

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There are many reasons that people don’t seek treatment when mental health issues arise. Let’s look at some of those reasons. The number one issue that prohibits persons from seeking help is the “ain’t nothing wrong with me” attitude. Often individuals may have been approached by family or friends who suggested that the individual may need to get help dealing with “stress” or a “set-back” or even “grief.” Under ideal circumstances, the individual will heed the advice and seek help. However, in too many instances the response is “ain’t nothing wrong with me, you think I’m crazy!”

That brings to mind the second reason people don’t seek help and that is the perception or stigma of being called “crazy”. Even with all the wonderful progress in the field of mental health there is still that stigma. People don’t want to be called “crazy” or perceived as being so. Even in the church there are people who have mental illness and don’t seek help because they don’t want to be called “crazy.” Sometimes church folk and family will say things like “she’s just a little slow”, or “God looks after babies and fools.” Yes, even in this century people still say things like that!! And yes, I know that the word “crazy” is not acceptable in describing mental illness.

I am not calling anybody crazy. I’m using the word to get a point across. When I tell people that I am a counselor often their first response is “oh, you work with crazy people.” So, the perception is still there, even in the twenty-first century, that people with mental illness are “crazy.” We have to face the reality that no matter how sophisticated we get and how much knowledge is gained through research and study that perceptions have to be addressed. All the great treatments are pointless if individuals don’t seek treatment and stick with it. Perception is reality and in order for individuals to seek treatment and recover, perception must be such that leads to treatment, not away from it.

A third reason that people don’t seek treatment for mental illness is limited access because of financial ability. There are so many uninsured people in our society, and that should not be the case. (But that’s another story!) Because of limited access many people with mental illness get sicker because of not being treated. I recently discovered that even some hospitals don’t have mental health components or a referral network. There are still many communities where individuals don’t have access to mental health treatment. I applaud the communities that have put mental health as a priority and understand that the health of the entire community is better when all its residents can get treatment for all types of health issues, including mental health. The faith community can play a role in gaining access to mental health treatment in their community. Churches in communities with no mental health access must come together and be leaders in working for and demanding full access to mental health for all residents.

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A fourth and very important reason that people don’t seek treatment for mental illness is the “God will heal me when he’s ready” attitude. Even in the church community we find stigmas and attitudes of shame in revealing that there is mental illness. Even in the church community people fear seeking help because they think that their church will see them as being “of little faith.” Even in the church community when there are faith based counseling centers we still find people who have the attitude that if people are sick then their faith is weak. Yes, even in this century people still have these attitudes.

Because of reason four, the church is in a strategic position to move the issues of mental health to a place of acceptance of treatment. The church is still a place where people trust what their leaders say, a place where faith is dependent upon trust. As a Christian I have complete and total trust in God and I know and believe that God can and does heal people. I also know and believe that God uses wonderful health care professionals every day, including those in mental health, to treat and heal people. God uses the hands and minds of these professionals for healing.

What I find disturbing about health and the church is that most churches embrace and support health professionals and some even have health programs as part of their ministries, yet some leave off the mental health piece. The church is vital to individuals seeking and getting mental health. When the church shows support for mental health treatment, its members develop a healthy attitude about mental health and treatment then becomes an option.

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The church can play a big role in removing the old stigmas of mental health and even bring people to the realization that mental health treatment is as important as any other medical treatment. Total health is about mind, body, and soul! All three must be healthy in order for the individual to be healthy and whole. The mind is the mental health. We must care for our mental health; for the mind is the guiding factor in living a healthy lifestyle. The body is the physical structure, our physical health. The soul is our spiritual being, our spiritual health. All three are important to being a healthy individual.

What can you do? Learn as much as you can about mental illness. Become an advocate and help individuals who need treatment, get it. Start a mental health ministry in your church and your community. People who have a mental illness should not be subjected to stigmas. You can help remove those stigmas by bringing the realization to the front that mental illness is a medical issue just like any other medical issue. If your church is not involved in the total health of the community, be the catalyst in bringing it to the table. Get your church, starting with your pastor and leaders, to embrace the need to support individuals with mental illness in ways that help them through treatment with dignity. Your church can help to finally remove the word “crazy” from the vocabulary.

Be informed! Be in action! Be a citizen seeking to make the community healthy in all areas: Mind, Body, and Soul!

By Doris Hines Brunson

Doris Hines Brunson is a retired professional counselor and wife of a United Methodist Pastor.