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Editorial: Mental illness is real, and Christians must help

One in five adults lives with a mental illness, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That figure does not change based on church membership or faith affiliation.

If we only think about mental illness when we read about mass shootings, we have a badly skewed understanding of what mental illness looks like.

Related: Editorial: It’s OK to not be OK, but don’t suffer alone

The most common diagnoses are depression, anxiety disorders and PTSD, all of which may hide from public view and sit quietly in the pew next to us, suffering alone.

Among people who have sought treatment, 25 percent have gone first to a member of the clergy — more than those who sought help from psychiatrists, physicians or anyone else, according to data cited by Lifeway Research.

Matthew Stanford

Matthew Stanford

Matthew Stanford, CEO of the Hope and Healing Center and an adjunct professor of psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine and Houston Methodist Hospital, writes about the interplay of psychology and issues of faith.

Stanford says too often people diagnosed with mental disorders are told by church members that they just need to pray more or turn from their sin, that they have a weak faith or are demon possessed. As a result, they are afraid to be open about their struggles.

Stanford and others believe, however, that the church is exactly who should support and serve those dealing with mental illness because Christians already understand that we are both physical and nonphysical.

But helping can be hard and awkward and sometimes embarrassing or even a little dangerous. So how can Christians and churches be more effective?

Expert advice coalesces under two broad themes: How do we understand mental illness, and how do we help people who are dealing with it?

“We must first understand that people with mental illness are people created in God’s image. We have to move past the idea that Christians can expect an easy, pain-free life.”

We must first understand that people with mental illness are people created in God’s image. We have to move past the idea that Christians can expect an easy, pain-free life. When we talk about mental illness — in sermons, classes, Bible studies and public prayers — we build acceptance and empathy, compassion and concern.

From there we can move forward and do what churches do by helping financially with the cost of treatments, providing meals and rides to appointments, visiting in the hospital or taking care of kids. We can refer to a professional when appropriate and call the police when necessary.

In the course of all that, church members are reminded to establish personal boundaries about how much they can extend of their own time, resources and hospitality.

It’s a complex problem. No one can solve or fix it — we aren’t Jesus. But we need to be his hands and feet.

Rick Atchley, senior minister for The Hills Church of Christ in suburban Fort Worth, Texas, began a series on mental health this spring after becoming convicted that “it is not well with our souls.”

“Between racial tension and election tension and pandemic, people are burned out, worn out and on edge,” Atchley noted.

Rick Atchley speaks to preachers during a workshop at African Christian College in Eswatini in 2017.

As he considered pursuing the topic, conversations with school counselors pushed him to commit to the project. So he began with three goals that would serve all of us well.

1. Destigmatize mental challenges: “Remove the idea that if I suffer below my neck, it’s legit, but not if I suffer above the neck.”

2. Become a more welcoming culture to people with mental health challenges.

3. Encourage anyone who needs to hear it to just take a step in the right direction: Call a doctor. Get counseling. Sleep more. Put down your phone.

Just take a step. — Cheryl Mann Bacon, for the Editorial Board

Filed under: Editorial healing health care Helping the needy Mental Health Mental health awareness Mental illness Opinion Rick Atchley The Hills Church of Christ Top Stories

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