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Congregations are called to include the mentally ill in church life
by Joanne Klassen
When the church seeks to be a compassionate light to the world, how does it do so with individuals or families affected by bipolar disorder? A church community begins by acknowledging and identifying with a person's suffering. It works to include people with mental illnesses in the congregation.
The Bible urges us to care for those who have less. Many urban street people have mental illness. Many with bipolar disorder are on disability or social assistance, which provides only substandard, even dangerous, housing and not enough money to make ends meet.
People who have a higher level of functioning may need supports to finish schooling, return to work, or find suitable work. Could the church find ways of helping people help themselves?
The list of fundamental Christian values could go on: love, forgiveness, restoration, inclusion and not judging. Their application to people struggling with bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses are endless. As the larger church we are limited only by our imagination and determination.
If we take seriously the image of the church as body, we must ask what each person has to offer to the community. “In fact, some parts of the body that seem weakest and least important are actually the most necessary…. So God has put the body together such that extra honour and care are given to those parts that have less dignity.” (1 Cor. 12: 22, 24).
Often we think of those with bipolar disorder as a burden to the church. However, each and every person has gifts: enthusiasm, drama, honesty about vulnerability, experience with the mental health system and more.
One of the best ways for a person to feel a sense of belonging is to be a participant, to have something to offer that others need. The body is made up of many parts, and when we are open to diversity we are enriched, even if we are occasionally uncomfortable.
Occasionally a person with bipolar disorder may do things we don’t understand: spending huge amounts of money unwisely, abusing substances, talking wildly about connections to the universe, acting out sexually and possibly illegal things like theft or reckless driving. These kinds of behaviors are part of the diagnostic criteria for bipolar disorder.
While we don’t entirely know what is going on in the person’s brain, bipolar disorder can cause thought disturbances that result in impulsive, destructive behavior. In the church, we often have a no-nonsense approach to undesirable or sinful behavior: We tell the person to stop sinning.
The complexity of bipolar disorder challenges such a basic approach to behavior change and raises tough questions: When, if ever, is a person not responsible for their behavior? What role do physical factors play with emotions and relationships—how much does my brain affect my relationships? What about choice and tolerance—if a person chooses a behavior that we have trouble with can we tolerate it in order to remain in relationship?
There are natural and sometimes legal consequences for behaviors that fall outside the norm. How might we take to heart Jesus’ words, “Judge not lest you be judged”? Might we advocate for a person in the health care system, the judicial system, with an employer, at a store or with family members?
Mental health in worship
A very damaging aspect of a bipolar diagnosis is the stigma that comes with it. Society and church sometimes perpetuate the stigma out of fear and/or misunderstanding.
How liberating might it be to hear Scriptures, prayers, songs and sermons that take mental illness as seriously as physical illness? What if mental health issues are spoken of using us language rather than them language?
When we have the courage to speak about bipolar disorder and mental health compassionately, intelligently, and publicly, we begin to make congregations safe places for people whose lives are not all in order. Isn’t that all of us?
When things are spoken aloud they become less secretive, less shameful, less binding. They have less ability to produce fear and fearful reactions. Many Bible passages speak comforting words to those in distress. Some mental health organizations have lists of resources that can be used in worship.
While everyone has abilities to offer the church, there are some people whose problems also require much care and support. In small churches or small towns, it may seem as though the same person or few people are constantly available for crisis or support help. After a time these people may become exhausted from their efforts to help.
There are ways to prevent fatigue. They take effort to establish, but eventually make the quality of care giving and one’s personal life goes up.
First, have a group of people as supports for a high-needs individual. If one person isn’t available, another can be called. People may have specific abilities and roles—offering rides, talking on the phone, helping with groceries, and providing spiritual care.
Secondly, have personal boundaries. If Saturday is your family day, set a limit on care giving activities. If night time calls are a problem, discuss how late is appropriate to call, and what qualifies as an emergency. Being direct is helpful, since it provides clarity in the relationship.
Third, know your limits. They may be: time limits (I cannot spend more than two hours per week), comfort factors (I can bring food, but I’m not a great listener), or awareness of your own well being (I have been struggling with depression myself lately and don’t have the same emotional resources I used to).
It’s vital to take care of yourself. This can mean taking a nap, turning off the phone for an evening, having a date with your spouse or a friend or a pedicurist, reading or any other things that replenish you inside. It’s important to celebrate and participate in joyous events so we don’t become dominated by a problem orientation to life.
The church is made up of human beings in all our diversity, uniqueness, abilities and difficulties. It’s a place where we can come together to explore our common humanity and grow together into people who express our greatest potential. This is a journey we take together as we encounter a world that is often challenging and often delightful. Let us delight in our relationships with one another.
Joanne Klassen is the director of Recovery of Hope, a counseling program offered by Eden Health Care Services in five communities in southern Manitoba. She has completed master’s degrees in marriage and family therapy and theology. Klassen wrote this article for Meetinghouse, an association of Mennonite and Brethren in Christ publications.
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