My Church Doesn’t Understand Mental Illness, Should I Leave?

"Our church is very supportive regarding my loved-one’s mental illness. So, I called our section pastor to see if we could help provide more information on mental health to others in the congregation, but he said “no” because they don’t really deal with mental illness at our church.”

This is a real story and more common than you think. However, research on mental health and the church reveals that on any given Sunday at least 27% of congregants are dealing with a mental illness, either personally or through a loved-one (Stanford, Baylor). Unfortunately, about 80-90% of those we are serving here at The Grace Alliance are not involved in a church community due to the lack of mental health understanding, support, along with hurtful experiences. 

“So, should I leave my church because they don’t understand me?" 

The church is “the pillar and foundation of truth” (1 Timothy 3.15). But that doesn’t mean we’ve achieved perfection; the New Testament is filled with examples of the early church learning to mature. When it comes to mental health and the church, we’re making progress.  However there are times and situations when it’s appropriate to look for a new community.  So, when should you stay, and when should you go?

 Why I should stay at my Church …

1. Misunderstood, but Loved

The leaders and community are honestly trying to understand, but they still “don’t get it”. They may give counsel and their sermons seemed to gloss over mental health or even trigger symptoms. Despite this, you know in their heart of hearts, they undoubtedly accept and love you. They would serve you in a time of need, even if they “don’t get it.”

2. Clueless, but Willing

The leaders are willing to listen to you and your request for more support. They will respond with “stigma” concerns that make you roll your eyes. Despite this, they are willing to learn how to better support you.  The process may take time—a little longer than you want, but try to accept the process with loving patience.

3. Distant, but Feasting

The leaders may have some of the first two points, but seem distant and uncaring regarding this topic.  Overall, you are benefiting from the sermons/teachings, the bible study and community groups are giving you life, and overall you’re being encouraged in your relationship with Christ. You walk away fed on the Word and encouraged to participate within other service opportunities.

This brings up a lot of questions on how to get the church involved … my next blog will be how to approach the church, helping them understand and support mental health needs. 

When I should consider leaving my church?

1. Excusing “It” Away as Your Spiritual Failure (spiritual stigma)

The leaders are deliberately telling you that mental illness doesn’t exist, and they equate it as unresolved sin issues, weak faith because you can't keep up with regular spiritual disciplines of prayer and reading the world, and/or equating mental illness as a demonic oppression / spiritual warfare due to something you’ve done to allow "the enemy into your life." In addition, they require you to go through many deliverance and inner-healing sessions to rid yourself of your symptoms / mental illness. These sessions are emotionally overwhelming and are filled with soul-searching questions with the intent to find “where the enemy came into your life.” They may also have you follow their instructions that are a "prophetic" activity ordering you to jump, sing, wear particular objects or some have you do some other strange activity, learn repetitious spiritual phrases or quote endless scriptures, and deny or rebuke symptoms — on and on. We’ve heard of so many strange situations that have deeply hurt people. This does not help, rather it makes their symptoms worse and creates more "learned helplessness."

2. Trusting God vs. Professionals

The leaders advise you to stop seeing your mental health professionals and even counsel you to stop taking your medication, concluding that you simply need to have faith for God’s divine healing. Leaders may even imply that they have received a divine revelation (heard God speak), and point to various scriptures to verify that their counsel should supersede mental health therapists, psychologists, and psychiatrists. This is dangerous and unprofessional. 

3. Work into Freedom Steps and Breakthrough vs. Rest, Comfort and Grace Process

The leaders are teaching and counseling in such a way that prescribe rigorous "spiritual disciplines" to free you and that Jesus will meet all your needs through these prescribed religious exercises, however they only trigger your symptoms, causing you to consistently struggle. These activities are made up of ritualistic or prescribed prayers, check-list bible-reading, fasting and various spiritual exercises in order to rid yourself of the variety of symptoms. Symptoms are seen as evil and God is grieved until you overcome. The emphasis of their teachings and counsel puts more pressure on you as the problem … “If you are not experiencing God here is what you have to do … you must do this …” The significance is on you working to get more peace and to somehow work on getting closer to God (as if you are far away ... which is not biblical).

4. Spiritual Control and Dependency

The leaders may use their strong personality to convince you in the manner of the first three points. They may even claim that they can heal you through their ministry (deliverance, inner-healing, or personal counseling or teaching ministry). They are directing everything you must do for your breakthrough (implying they are in greater communion with God than you). You have to keep going back to them for more advice, counsel and the next steps. If it is not working and you question their teaching or logic, they will use scriptures to hide behind and hod their "authority" over you, which ultimately positions you are against or questioning God. They are secure and you are not. 

At the end of the day all this just makes people tired, disgruntled and leads them into doubting God and the church. This is grievous to the full love and grace of God. I believe God is more secure with mental health difficulties and disorders than we think! 

SPEAK OUT: If you’re experiencing any of the 4 examples from lay leadership or one of the department pastors (not from the main pastoral leadership), first contact your main pastoral leaders and explain what is happening.  You might find them very surprised that is how you are being “ministered” to.  Give them the opportunity to make changes and offer reconciliation.  

You should always first try to talk with your leaders and explain about mental illness, looking for their desire to learn. You could be the first person that is introducing them into a greater perspective to support mental health needs within the church. 

If they are resistant and you know you need to leave … leave with a blessing, not bitterness. Thank them for their efforts to help you and you are looking to other communities that you feel more comfortable. Don't focus on creating drama, just bless them and move on. 

The topic of mental health difficulties and disorders is gaining a lot of attention within the church and has breached the elder’s meetings probably more than once.

If you are in a church that is trying, but still doesn’t get it, be patient … in the next blog we will discuss how to help your church through the paradigm shift.

Joe Padilla, CEO and Founder

The Grace Alliance