It’s been estimated that one in five people sitting in church pews on Sunday morning struggle with their mental health: darkness, despair, relentless grief, choking fear, self-loathing.
These seatmates are our friends, our family, our elders, our pastors. It’s been me. Maybe it’s been or currently is you.
Are our pew-mates who experience persistent mental health challenges finding support among faith communities? Are their struggles known and shared? Do we really believe Jesus calls us to care about the whole person, body, mind and spirit?
Kay and Rick Warren lost their son Matthew to death by suicide in 2013. Matthew struggled with severe mental illness for several years. Since his death, Kay has written and spoken prolifically about faith, the church, mental illness and suicide.
Kay recently spoke with us at Anabaptist Disabilities Network. While growing up, she said, her family tried really hard to hide all their failures, weaknesses and flaws. “It’s a toxic way to live,” she said. “It cuts off genuine connection with other people.” After the suicide of their son, she and her husband decided they would not be silent about it. “Our son was ill. There is no shame in having an illness.”
Nowadays, Kay advocates for people in the church to nurture vulnerability and openness while providing support to others. Kay says this about mental illness stigma and the church:
“No one should ever have to whisper anything about their lives in the church, in the faith community. Of all places, this is where we must be welcoming and embracing. This is within the power of the faith community. The faith community is the number one legitimizing force in society.”
Although stigma surrounding mental illness is on the decline, it’s still hard for many people to talk about their experiences with mental illness and seek support. The unspoken culture of congregations too often communicates that we need to keep our problems like mental illness to ourselves … or to a whisper.
On behalf of the people who feel like they can only whisper about their experiences with mental illness, it’s time for the church to do some shouting. It’s time for us to clearly communicate our love, care and full acceptance of friends who suffer with depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, suicidality and other isolating experiences of mental illness. We must be able to say to our brothers and sisters in Christ, “Your experiences are not too big, too scary or too hopeless for us. We want you! We need you! Let us support you!”
The church shouts out their support when they speak to and include everyone in the congregation. This normalizes the experiences of mental illness. For example, when the experiences of depression are discussed from the pulpit or studied in Sunday school class, the church effectively communicates, “We see you. You are not alone. Your hurt and hopelessness belongs here. We know the darkness, too. Here you have friends to help carry the burdens.”
It’s time to start shouting.
Consider planning a Mental Health Sunday in which worship is inspired by the experiences of people living with mental illness. It’s an easy way to communicate compassion, understanding and relentless acceptance.
ADN has compiled several resources for you to get started planning a Mental Health Sunday. Take a look. Form a committee. Get started. And be in touch if there’s anything we can help with along the way.
Denise Reesor is program director for Anabaptist Disabilities Network (ADN). She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. A version of this post originally appeared on ADN’s Opening Doors blog and also on MC USA’s Menno Snapshots blog.