This post is in response to a question I was recently asked, “In light of the talk about mental illness around the recent school shootings, do you think that pastors should speak more to the subject of mental illness?” My short answer is, “Yes, I believe the church should have a more active voice in the conversations around mental illness, but it is unwise for a church to begin talking about mental illness in the immediate aftermath of these kinds of tragedies.”
Why Not Now?
I’ll begin this post with discussing the “why not now” portion of my answer and then offer some thoughts on how the church can be a constructive part of the mental illness conversation.
The first reason that the aftermath of a national crisis is not the time is that the call of the moment is to “weep with those who weep” (Rom 12:15). There is enough ministry to be done in the area of grief and trauma to fill our capacity to assist.
Personally, I remember being a recent high school graduate in 1997 when one of the early the school shootings took place at Heath High School (Paducah, KY). Last month, when there was a shooting at nearby Marshall County High School, I realized that as a student I had walked those hallways too. Even as an adult, who is a counselor, it rattled me. A discussion of the shooter’s mental illness may have given some people something to be mad at after a tragedy (helping us feel less powerless), but it would not have ministered to the forefront need of my soul.
You can probably already hear the second reason in the conclusion to the previous point. A discussion of mental illness after a domestic terrorist attack rallies anger, then fear. It does not generate compassion. Anger and fear only add to the confusion that exists around the subject of mental illness.
I have been saddened by the news reports I’ve read/heard which go out of their way to say the shooter was taking psychotropic medications. The implication is that people who take medications that are prescribed by a psychiatrist are dangerous. This is both wrong and reinforces the very stigmas that a ministry conversation should be removing.
I believe this stigma-reinforcement largely comes from a genuine point of cultural ignorance (not meant as a derogative, but simply to say “not knowing”). In the media discussion “mental illness” is being used as a synonym for “personality disorder.” In the everyday conversation, “mental illness” is used as a synonym for “crazy.” If this is how our ministry conversation is heard after a tragedy, it will have the opposite effect of what we desire.
Mental illness is a broad term that covers everything from depression to ADD to OCD. Living a broken world, our churches are filled with warm-hearted, spirit-filled believers who wrestle with these struggles. More than “not dangerous,” these are often some of the most helpful and loving people in our churches.
Personality disorders are a more pervasively disruptive form of mental illness that includes narcissism and borderline personality (to list just two of the ten types). These are the struggles that can mute empathy, distort the conscience, and impair reality testing to the point that violent behavior can be a predictable safety concern. These are the traits that fellow students picked up on and were afraid of (but couldn’t put into words) when they would say the gunman was “just kinda off… something was different about him.”
Note 1: I am a pastoral counselor and not a mental health professional, so I do not have the qualification to make diagnoses. I strive to be a clinically-informed, pastoral counselor so I can help translate the concepts of mental health for those in the church (as this post attempts to do).
Note 2: Not everyone who is diagnosed with a personality disorder is a violent threat. Even the clarification above can be misapplied to generate undue fear and stigma.
To summarize my second point, for the church to speak on mental illness after a tragedy like a school shooting generalizes all forms of mental illness as something dangerous and shuts down the ministry opportunities we would be seeking to open up.
Okay, Then How?
Complex subjects like mental health are not best discussed at a one-time event or a single weekend service. Mental illness is not a subject that can be mastered in a sermon or lecture. Additionally, for those who experience mental illness, these are day-in-day-out experiences and need to be spoken about regularly in the preaching-teaching-discipleship-testimony ministries of the church. Five to eight sermon illustrations (if only 2 minutes each) over the course of year is more effective than a 45 minute sermon once a year; even though by quantity it would only be one-third of the total amount of teaching time.
Note 3: It would be wise to have these teaching elementsvetted by an experienced counselor for two reasons. First, and most obvious, you want to make sure what is said is accurate. Second, having conversations about the illustration or point will help you become more conversationally comfortable. As much as you are educating the congregation, you are modeling how to talk about mental health issues in a relaxed, informed manner.
Our initial ministry goal is less teaching people how to think theologically, which is vitally important, but can only be achieved after helping people realize church is a safe place to talk about their experience. Anxiety about whether a conversation is safe interferes with people’s ability to assimilate, much less apply, information.
A place of belonging is something the church can uniquely offer which has incredible therapeutic benefit. The perpetual sense of being rejected and having no outlet for healthy community/communication is what slowly turns someone from hurting to disturbed to violent. May our churches increasingly become a vital remedy for this social isolation in our polarized culture.A place of belonging is something the church can uniquely offer. The perpetual sense of being rejected and having no outlet for healthy community/communication is what slowly turns someone from hurting to disturbed to violent. Click To Tweet
To that end, here are a few suggestions:
- Don’t assume all counseling issues are mental health issues. Here is an article to help you understand the differences “What is Counseling About? Problems in Living, Meaning of Life, or Mental Health?” When we make all-things-counseling matters of mental health, we reinforce the notion that people should wait until things are “that bad” before they seek help.
- Have a plan to promote quality counseling resources through your church’s social media channels – “How to Promote Excellent Counseling Resources to Your Church Members,” because what a pastor talks about in the pulpit and tweets about is what his people feel like it’s okay to struggle with.
- Have a working understanding of what a wisdom approach to psychotropic medication sounds like so you’re more conversationally comfortable with the subject – “6 Steps to Wise Decision Making on Psychotropic Medications.” No, pastors don’t prescribe or recommend medication, but if we can’t have a comfortable conversation about them, then we’re indirectly telling people they shouldn’t consider them.
- Read a book on mental health and medication. For a devotional, layman’s read I would recommend Descriptions and Prescriptions: A Biblical Perspective on Psychiatric Diagnoses and Medications by Michael Emlet. For a more in-depth read from a secular professional I would recommend Saving Normal by Allen Frances, M.D. If you want a sample from this work, here is a blog post with an excerpt.
If we do these things consistently and well and the church’s conversation about mental health is not in reaction to a terrifying news story, then our attempt to reach out to those who are hurting won’t inadvertently cause them to hide their struggle further.
If this post was beneficial for you, then consider reading other blogs from my “Favorite Posts on Mental Illness and Medication” post which address other facets of this subject.