The Church as Supporter

Marja Bergen

Web-only article from "First Responders for Young People" issue of Visions Journal, 2006, 3(2)

“Marja,” my friend Helen said, as she fixed her eyes firmly on mine, “no matter what you do or what you say, I’ll always love you.” Her words touched me deeply. How I needed to hear that!

I had been depressed for a while, feeling ashamed and worthless. Although I don’t feel suicidal very often, at that time I had begun to plan how I would end the misery. But through this woman I heard God speaking—and it changed everything. For the first time I sensed the extent of God’s love for me.

Helen had only been a friend for half a year, but she is one of the most important supporters I’ve had during my 40 years with mental illness. I had joined the small group she led at my new church. When I began to struggle with severe mood disturbances, Helen quickly learned all she could about bipolar disorder so she would know how to best help me. She even sat in on a session with my psychiatrist when I was in trouble and my husband was out of town. This new church friend has been what a follower of Christ is meant to be—compassionate and nonjudgmental.

Linda,* who also lives with bipolar disorder, has also enjoyed positive support from her church friends. She speaks enthusiastically about her experiences. “My church has given me the grace and strength to face my mental health problems head on, instead of allowing pride or shame to sweep it under the rug.

“There was always a huge gap in my treatment program because it completely bypasses the spiritual component—which is a very important one for me personally,” Linda continues. “Recently, however, I have been able to address these issues and other faith/health questions through my church and with Christian friends who share these issues. It’s been like finding the lost puzzle piece in my treatment.”

Unfortunately, the kind of support Linda and I have found is not always available in churches. Dr. Roger Fallot, editor of Spirituality and Religion in Recovery from Mental Illness, explains how some religious communities actually reinforce a depressed person’s negative feelings. “The flip side of finding a wonderful source of social support in a religious community is finding one that is rejecting. And the whole sense of not fitting in because you have a mental health disorder can be very painful.”1

David,* who lives with a schizoaffective disorder, is a Christian who does not feel comfortable in church. He senses an air of pretense and longs for church people to be “more real,” like the friends he has in the community. There was a time he went to church leaders when he was in crisis, but he doesn’t any more. “I haven’t found anyone I can trust,” he says.

Fellow Christians had sometimes told David that medication was a crutch—that faith in God should be sufficient. This kind of thinking is not uncommon. There is still a lack of knowledge among many people about the medical nature of mental health disorders.

There is a danger in approaching clergy who are not educated in the field of mental health: the true problem might not be recognized and much-needed medical attention may be delayed. Pastor Jon Manlove of New Life Community Church in Burnaby recognizes this danger. “There are many churches and Christians who tend to spiritualize every problem and consider it unspiritual to seek help from a mental health professional. I would like to see more Christians mobilized and trained to give support to those struggling with mental illness.” But there are even Christians, who themselves experience mental health issues, that assume their problems originate from spiritual shortcomings.

The medical profession, however, is becoming increasingly aware of spirituality’s value to patients’ well-being. According to BP Magazine, “At least 16 psychiatric residency programs in the United States offer formal training in religious and spiritual issues. Similar training is happening in Canada.”2 Theological colleges now need to take similar steps, encouraging future pastors to take courses in mental health.

Before the time of professional counsellors, psychologists and psychiatrists, it was the church's role to counsel people when they had problems. One person I interviewed said the following: “With the declining resource base for mental health, I've found the church has provided me with supports (e.g., support groups; prayer partners) that were close to home and far less ‘clinically detached’ than conventional helps. They are a welcome addition to my mental health plan.”

There are two churches in Burnaby that have started faith-based support groups for people with mood disorders—where they are able to feel comfortable talking about God (often not so in secular groups) and about their mental health issues (often not so in church groups).

The unconditional love that Christ displayed and that Christians are called to emulate is, in the words of Dr. Harold Koenig, co-director of the Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health at Duke University Medical Center, “the ultimate long-term antidote for depression.”3 I know that, next to my medications, this is what is most valuable to my survival. It is my hope that one day more churches will have people like my friend Helen.

 
About the author
Marja, a Burnaby photographer and writer, lives with Bipolar disorder. She is the author of "Riding the Rollercoaster: Living with Mood Disorder" to better prepare Christians to help people with mental health issues, she is writing a second book about being a person of faith living with mental illness.
Footnotes:
  1. Fallot, R.D. (Ed.) (1998). New directions for mental health services, spirituality and religion in recovery from mental illness. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

  2. Peradotto, N. (2006, Summer). Connecting mind, body and spirit. BP Magazine, 40-44. www.bphope.com/insidesummer2006issue.php

  3. Biebel, D.B. & Koenig, H.G. (2004). New light on depression: Help, hope, and answers for the depressed and those who love them. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

 

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