Churches and Mental illness

Presbyterians Today

Cover of Presbyterians Today Magazine - October 2008

Mental illness in America

About 25 percent of Americans 18 years of age and older suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year. Serious mental illnesses affect about six percent of the U.S. population. Bipolar disorder affects approximately 5.7 million American adults, or about 2.6 percent of the U.S. population age 18 and older in a given year. About 2.4 million American adults or about 1.1 percent of the population age 18 and older in a given year have schizophrenia. In addition, mental disorders are the leading cause of disability in the U.S. and Canada for those ages 15 to 44. Many people suffer from more than one mental disorder at a given time. About 45 percent of those with any mental disorder meet criteria for two or more disorders.

--- National Institutes of Mental Health

Lunch and Prayers

At Central Presbyterian Church in Louisville, Ky., a weekly free lunch open to the public has turned into a ministry mostly to the mentally ill. The Rev. Mark Bairidon, co-pastor of the church, leads the group in a responsive reading. Bairidon follows this with prayer requests and praises, which are often deeply personal. One woman asks for prayers following the death of her son, others for help for themselves or friends battling a range of medical or mental problems. He prays for those assembled, and just a few minutes later, the crowd partakes of its weekly lunch.

The people who serve the meal are workers from the Center for Rehab and Recovery, a local program that assists mentally ill men. The men from the program now prepare and serve the meal, and receive job training as part of their work.

Henry Giles, one of the men from the Center, says he welcomes the opportunity to serve. “I like coming here and helping out, the serving and preparing of food,” says Giles, who says he suffers from depression. “Otherwise, they couldn’t get it done on time. It’s satisfying to know I can do something to help out during the week when I would otherwise be sitting around the house.”

The lunches began during Advent in 2003, when Bairidon and other church members threw open the doors of the church for a noontime, weekday meal. The church welcomed anyone, but those who responded were mostly low income or homeless from the surrounding neighborhoods, many suffering from some type of mental illness. The crowd was hungry for ministry, and for a meal, so the church has kept up the weekly meal, which now feeds about 150 people every week.

Out of the shadows

Churches are finding ways to meet the spiritual needs of people struggling with mental illness

By Robyn Davis Sekula

Presbyterians Today | October 2008

For years, Nashville psychiatrist Dr. Beth Baxter struggled with mental illness. As a college student, her manic symptoms made it easy for her to throw herself into work and activities.

But once she entered medical school, it was tough for her to continue to cope. She failed all of her midterms one semester, and went to live in Texas on a cattle ranch with her grandparents. While it was a great place to clear her head, she needed a lot more than a change of scenery. Her illness manifested itself again when her grandparents found her hours away from their home, supposedly driving to meet friends at a lake, only none of those plans were true. But Baxter believed they were.

In 1994, Baxter tried to slit her own throat, and considers it a divine miracle that she didn’t succeed. Baxter was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, which has a combination of the mood swings of bipolar disorder and the psychotic thought processes of schizophrenia. Baxter’s physicians found an anti-psychotic drug that curbed the symptoms and helped her live a normal life.

Today, Baxter is a psychiatrist, and an elder in the Presbyterian church. She has lead her home church, Hillsboro Presbyterian in Nashville, to establish a ministry to help those struggling with mental illness, and their families. “Those of us with mental illness have had a great loss in our lives,” Baxter says. “The truth is that everybody has losses in their lives they have to adapt to. You need to give hope to people that they can overcome the problems in their lives, and that helps everybody.”

Beyond the stigma

Finding ways to bring the mentally ill into the church fold can be daunting, but it’s a worthwhile ministry that many churches are considering, says Nancy Troy, executive director of the Presbyterian Health, Education and Welfare Association for the Presbyterian Church USA. “There is a stigma that is still very much alive with people talking about their own mental illness and sharing stories about how their families are affected and not knowing what to do when a family member comes into the congregation and how to make accommodations for that,” Troy says. “Fear, lack of knowledge are part of it. I don’t think it’s a lack of compassion. It’s a new step for many people to take, to look at how they might be helpful.”

In every congregation there are people who have been affected by some form of mental illness. "If you think that one in four, or one in five [Americans] will have a major episode of depression-whether it's situational or due to a life-changing event that means that one in four or one in five in your congregation are going through depression," says Jeri Fields, associate pastor of Mount Vernon Presbyterian Church in Alexandria, Va.

Mount Vernon started a ministry in 1999 to assist several members who had adult children with special needs. Fields calls it “a ministry of wholeness” for anyone struggling with disabilities or mental illness.

The group meets every Friday night and begins with a meal. What follows varies: a Bible study or book study, game night or arts and crafts. About 65 people usually participate.

The church also seeks to incorporate them into worship. Once a year the group leads a Sunday service, mental illness. including choosing the music. Fields believes the group has enriched the church, bringing in new members, and also ministering to other long-time members. "God is doing amazing things,” she says.

At Nashville's Hillsboro Presbyterian, where Beth Baxter attends, people with mental illness are encouraged to come to worship and Sunday school. The church provides transportation, as many cannot drive due to medications they must take. Those with mental illness lead a worship service every October, raising awareness of the disease and how it impacts their lives. The church also hosts a support group called “Journey of Hope.”

Not always comfortable

By all accounts, inviting the mentally ill to openly attend church isn’t a budget bolsterer, or a move to increase the membership roles. Many attend special ministries designed with them in mind but don’t attend a regular church service. And sometimes, inviting them to attend drives away some long-time members who simply aren’t comfortable surrounded by people who don’t sing at the right time or act in traditional ways. That’s a reality, McCurley says, that any church that reaches out to this population will have to deal with.

But it’s worth it, says Rev. Mark Meeks, pastor of Capitol Heights Presbyterian in Denver. As a small church near the center of Denver, Capitol Hill has members and neighbors surrounding the church who have been affected by mental illness. The church began cultivating a greater sensitivity to mental illness in the mid-1980s, and also helped start the Capitol Hill United Ministries, a coalition of area churches that help minister to the mentally ill.

“They are a valued part of our life,” Meeks says. “We try to learn with them what the challenges entail. One of our beliefs is that all human experience can be valuable, even hurtful experiences you’d otherwise not want to have. It can still be informative and helpful to the community.”

The church holds forums in which those who are mentally ill share their experiences, and also has those who are mentally ill speak during the regular church service. Also, the church houses offices for the state chapter of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill. And the church raises money to give to agencies that support the needs of those who are mentally ill.

 “You just acknowledge the experience,” Meeks says. “We’d all be amazed by the numbers of people touched by the mentally ill. People start talking about an experience in their life or a loved one in their life. It’s amazing the commonality.”

Other churches seek to bring in the mentally ill through more traditional means. At Hillsboro Presbyterian, where Baxter attends, the church encourages those who are mentally ill to come to the regular church service and its traditional Sunday School classes.

Ministering to the mentally ill is not always comfortable for everyone, says Rev. Nancy McCurley, associate pastor of Hillsboro Presbyterian. It means, in some cases, tolerating and even embracing unconventional behavior.

“They might doze off in church,” McCurley says. “They might need to get up and walk around during Sunday school. There is one man in church whose voice lags behind everyone else in the congregation. It used to be, it would disturb people’s concentration. Now it has become a symbol of the kingdom.”

Robyn Davis Sekula is a member of Highland Presbyterian Church in Louisville, Ky.