I’ve started this post a dozen times – either in my head or on the actual computer – and I’ve rejected every attempt. I don’t want to sound like I’m offering a simple solution to a complex problem and I know that there are those who I would consider brothers and sisters in the faith that may disagree with the stance I am about to take. But the Holy Spirit will not let me give up on this so I’m back for yet another attempt and hopefully I get it posted this time!
The tragedy in Connecticut is still fresh in my mind. I have been a teacher, I have children, I have a niece and a nephew in Kindergarten . . . you name it, I can find a connection that moves me to tears! And I’ve watched so much anger and venom filling social media sites as people scream for answers. Strong positions have been taken up on both sides of the gun control issue and it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that the whole issue of 2nd Amendment rights could become a very polarizing issue in our nation.
But I think there is another issue that needs just as much attention. Maybe more. It’s time to start talking honestly and openly about mental health issues without shame or fear of harassment.
Churches offer support groups for those recovering from all types of addiction, and some even offer counseling for couples who have been hit by the pain of infidelity on the part of husband or wife. But for some reason, we still want to sweep mental illness under the rug. In my research, I came across a research project that looked at school shootings from all over the world – both K-12 schools and colleges – from 1997 through 2012. The number of shooters who were suffering from mental illness – AND being treated with drugs that are KNOWN to have dangerous side effects for teenagers – is shocking. Nearly all of the shooters fall into that category. For me, it leaves no doubt in my mind that a discussion on gun control is incomplete if we don’t address the mental illness that leads them to a place where they take such violent action.
I’ve had a handful of church friends over my 40 + years who have confided in me that they have been diagnosed with some form of mental illness. They were afraid to do so because, in every single case, they were afraid I would see them as being “spiritually weak” or not having enough faith. I was (and am) flattered that they trusted me with something so personal. And it broke my heart to know that their fears were based on actual responses they had gotten from people in the church.
Our church buildings need to become safe places for those with mental illnesses. We need to love on their families as well. In the case of children with mental illness issues, the parents can struggle knowing how to ask for help, feeling that they did something wrong to “cause” their child’s illness and fearing that they will be shunned by their church family.
Mental illness is not a sign of spiritual deficiency or a lack of faith. It is a chemical misfire in the brain. Nothing more, nothing less.
So what can we do? Encourage honest, open dialogue about the issue in our Bible Study groups, Sunday School classes, women’s groups, etc. We need to come along side the families of those who have been diagnosed with a mental illness and offer whatever help we can. Maybe it’s sitting through a doctor’s appointment with mom or learning the special needs of caring for a dependent child so mom and dad can go out. Maybe it’s simply sitting with someone and letting them talk. We need to understand what treatment entails and encourage those undergoing treatment because, from what little I know, it can take time to get the “meds” adjusted and treatment is a lifelong reality.
It’s time to remove the stigma from mental illness and I’m hoping that my brothers and sisters in the faith will rise up and lead the way, making our congregations places of refuge, support, and help for those who face the daily reality of mental illness.