May 17, 2013
Friday Five Interview: Amy Simpson
How should the Church respond to mental illness? We asked the author of the new book, Troubled Minds.
For today's entry in the Friday Five interview series, we catch up with Amy Simpson.
Amy Simpson is editor of Christianity Today's Gifted for Leadership and author of numerous resources for Christian ministry. Her latest book is Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church's Mission (InterVarsity Press). You can find her at AmySimpsonOnline.com and on Twitter: @aresimpson.
Today we chat with Amy about the difficult subject of mental illness and the Church’s response:
What prompted you to write about and study mental illness in the church?
My family was affected by mental illness. My mother has schizophrenia, which had a profound effect on our family, especially when I was a young teenager. Like many other families, we stayed pretty quiet about what we were experiencing, and we didn’t receive the support we needed from the church. My dad was a pastor for 10 years, and after that we were involved laypeople. But many people didn’t know what was happening. And the church leaders who probably wanted to help us didn’t know how. No one ever talked about mental illness at church.
In my own pursuit of healing, I worked to understand my mom’s illness and how it affected me. I started learning about how common mental illness is. I read about other people’s experiences and realized how similar they were to ours. I grew to understand that the church’s lack of engagement was affecting many more people than just my family. God began to nudge me toward writing on this topic as a ministry to others. As I was planning an article for Leadership Journal, the editor and I felt it would be valuable to survey church leaders and find out about their experiences with mental illness. And later, as I was writing Troubled Minds, I interviewed several people because I wanted to represent more perspectives and experiences than just my own family’s. But my family’s experience was the starting point.
Recent tragedies such as the death of Rick Warren's son have raised awareness of mental illness among evangelicals. Yet we're still a bit hesitant to talk about it. Why is that?
Culturally, we have many historically based misconceptions about mental illness. Most people don’t know enough about it to feel confident discussing it. And even now, brain science is still an emerging frontier. The causes and remedies for mental illnesses are not always known. So I think the sense of mystery around it, partly outdated and partly legitimate, intimidates people.
Most people also feel intimidated because they don’t have the professional education and qualifications to feel confident in helping. But most of us aren’t medically qualified to help someone with a broken leg or cancer either, yet we know we can offer our support. There’s something about mental illness that often keeps us from offering that same kind of support.
That something is stigma. In our culture at large and in the church, we respond differently to mental illness than we do to other afflictions. We tend to marginalize people with mental illness, to write them off as incapable of contributing to our communities, and to fear them. This stigma is reinforced in popular culture, the way we speak about mental illness, and our ongoing silence on the topic. It’s starting to change very slowly, but we have a long way to go. I believe the church should be leading the way in rejecting stigma and irrational fears of mental illness.
For many church leaders, it is hard to distinguish between a problem that can be solved spiritually and a legitimate mental illness. What advice can you give them in counseling?
Another thing that keeps many people quiet is that mental illness tends to raise difficult spiritual questions we don’t always know how to answer: How accountable are people for their behavior when they have symptoms of mental illness? Does demon possession cause mental illness? Why does God allow the kind of suffering that can cause despair, delusions, and overwhelming anxiety? Why isn’t following Jesus enough to heal mental illness?
In my book, I addressed this question and fell back on the sensible advice of Dr. Archibald Hart, Professor of Psychology at Fuller Theological Seminary: “Unless you are trained in psychopathology … the most responsible action you can take is to refer the troubled person to a psychologist or psychiatrist for diagnosis.”
In many cases, a person may have both mental illness and spiritual issues to deal with. The best way to find out whether a mental illness is present is to refer the person to a mental-health professional. If the person has a treatable mental illness, that treatment can help clear the way for more effectively addressing spiritual issues. Referral doesn’t mean the church leader’s job is done. Many pastors and other leaders make referrals and then walk away. But people who are receiving mental-health treatment have spiritual needs too. And mental illness is often accompanied by spiritual crisis. It’s critical to stick with people and provide pastoral care.
What are some of the common misconceptions about those who suffer with mental illness?
A very common misconception is that people with mental illness are inherently violent and dangerous. In general, people with mental illness are no more prone to violence than the general population. But many are vulnerable to violence and far more likely to be victims of crime than to commit crimes.
It’s also common to believe that mental illness is rare and happening on the fringes of our society. In reality, each year in the United States, about 26 percent of adults experience a diagnosable mental illness. On top of that, millions of children and teenagers have mental illnesses. There is wide variety in the disorders that affect our brains, just as with the rest of our bodies. Most mental illnesses don’t look like the sensationalized versions we see on TV and in the movies. Most look like our friends and neighbors and the people sitting in our churches on Sunday morning, suffering from depression or anxiety disorders or other common conditions.
Many people also mistakenly believe that people with mental illness are doomed to live wasted and unproductive lives—that they can’t contribute to the life of the church. We have this sense of spiritual hopelessness about mental illness that we don’t have about other treatable conditions, even when they’re very serious. But God has a purpose for everyone. Mental illness may alter the course of a person’s life, but it doesn’t mean that person’s life is no good anymore. Psalm 139 is a beautiful reminder of our value to God, and his attention to the details of our lives. Verse 16 celebrates, “You saw me before I was born. Every day of my life was recorded in your book. Every moment was laid out before a single day had passed.” God is not surprised by any of our suffering, and he wants to use all of us. His redemption is always at work, and he uses suffering to make all of us more like him and to qualify us for ministry to others. If the church gives up on people, that is the church’s doing. It’s not God’s policy.
If you could give one piece of advice to a family member or friend of someone who suffers this way, what would you say?
I would say take care of yourself. You can do that in three very important ways.
First, don’t neglect your own health more than you have to in a time of acute crisis. Don’t try to do this on your own. Pray, be honest with God about your own suffering, and ask him to give you strength and wisdom. As with any illness or injury, you can’t provide good long-term care for someone else if you’re not strong and healthy.
Second, you can care for yourself by finding other people to help you. This can be tricky because your family member or friend might not want you to talk with others about his or her illness¬. But you can choose to talk about yourself and your own needs. Or you might reach out for help and be rejected or hurt by someone’s response. Look in safe places like support groups specifically created for loved ones of people with mental illness. Look for a local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), and find out when their support groups meet. Look for a local church or Christian ministry that offers supportive groups. Try to find a Christian counselor who can help you make sense of your own suffering and support your health.
Third, you can face and seek answers to your own theological questions and spiritual crisis. For many people, mental illness just doesn’t fit what we thought the Christian life should be. And because we don’t often hear it addressed in churches, you may feel God doesn’t have answers to your questions. But he does, and you’re not the first person to ask them. Ask God to help you understand his truth in your situation, and seek counsel from a spiritual leader who has expertise in this area. In the back of Troubled Minds, I recommend some resources, including books, websites, and organizations, who can help with these questions. Your own spiritual health and strength can give you confidence in walking through mental illness alongside someone you love—who may ask those same questions.