A representation of mental illness. Public domain image of a mannequin, courtesy of Dennis Hill.

On Easter Sunday morning, a young man on his way through the receiving line at church asked me, “Can Jesus heal my mental illness?”

I was taken aback, not only at the very intimate question in a very public space, but also that my sermon about Mary’s grief at the tomb, about her willingness to ask a total stranger, a man she has assumed is the gardener, where they had taken her friend’s body, about how grief can best be resolved in community, and that community can knit our lives back together, could warrant this response…

“Can Jesus heal my mental illness?

A recent Facebook post in a secret group asked a question, “Are you seeing more mental illness in your congregation these days?” Ministers had simple answers: Yes. Bi-polar disorder. Post-traumatic stress syndrome. Schizophrenia. Dissociative identity disorder. Suicidal ideation. Depression. Eating disorders. Personality disorders. We’re seeing more of it.

Clergy are now first responders for mental health issues.

And we’re first responders when it comes to trauma, too. A congregant (young woman) came to me recently and began telling me about the sex she had the night before… non-consensual? un-wanted? I hesitate to call it sexual assault, because she didn’t call it that, but it was clear that it was bad sex.

Forty-five minutes into the conversation, I had to ask. “Are you on medication?” I didn’t know what the answer would be, but it was something like, “Yeah, but I’m off on it right now. I forgot to renew my prescription, but I’ll have it back next week.” Then I got to ask the ever so popular question, “Do you think it might be related to your difficulties?”

If we are first responders to trauma and mental health issues, what do we need to know?

First, we need to normalize our congregants’ experiences. “You are not alone… there are a lot of people suffering with mental health issues, even here in our congregation.” “Yes, I hear that medication can be a difficult solution—it can make you feel flat, or emotionless.” “Depression is hard.” Normalizing mental illness helps remove the shame our congregants feel, and makes it more likely that they’ll seek professional health.

Second, we have to know some of what they’re going through, if only through education or listening to others. There are common threads throughout all mental health histories: trauma, feeling misunderstood, disliking the treatment (sometimes as much as the illness itself), and both the isolation and stigma of mental health issues. And can we add this to the list of things we didn’t learn in seminary?

Third, we need some resources in our pockets. Call your local Mental Health Awareness agency and see what’s available for folks in your community. Ask your church members who work in mental health fields about who in your community can help. Find trainings for mental health competency in your area.

You might be asking if a serious discussion of mental illness qualifies for the pastoral is political post. The answer is yes!

Mental illness is political, because after every mass shooting here in the United States, some politician blames mental illness, rather than blaming access to guns. Every time we blame violence on mental health we stigmatize folks with mental illness.

According to the American Mental Health Counseling Association:

  • Most persons with serious mental illness are never violent.  However, small subgroups of persons with serious mental illness are at increased risk of violence during certain high-risk periods, such as during a first-episode of psychosis and the period surrounding inpatient psychiatric hospitalization.
  • People with serious mental illness are rarely violent. Only 3 to 5 percent of all violence, including but not limited to firearm violence, is attributable to serious mental illness.  The large majority of gun violence toward others is not caused by mental illness.
  • People with serious mental illness are far more likely to be victims of violence, including but not limited to firearm violence, than the perpetrators of violent acts.
  • Rates of violent crime victimization are 12 times higher among the population of persons with serious mental illness than among the overall U.S. population.

Mental illness is political because of budgets, too. Mental health services are on the chopping block in our national budget. According to CLASP, a national, nonpartisan, anti-poverty nonprofit advancing policy solutions for low-income people, Trump’s newest proposals for mental health funding “would gut Medicaid and focus almost exclusively on opioids,” thereby “undermining access to mental health supports.”

And finally, mental illness is pastoral. One in five Americans suffer with mental illness. Heck, many of us in pastoral roles suffer with mental illness. Our churches should be sanctuary to those suffering, and we as pastors must be prepared to advocate for those who are suffering.

“Can Jesus heal my mental illness?” the young man asked. Yes, I believe that Jesus can and does heal mental illness—with the help of mental health professionals. Let me, as your pastor, help you get the help you need.

Rev. Lia Scholl is not-that-kind-of-Baptist preacher and pastor in Winston-Salem, North Carolina (U.S.) and is the author of I Heart Sex Workers (Chalice Press, 2013).

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