A friend emailed me about an acquaintance who had been newly diagnosed with bipolar illness. Bill had struggled and suffered a lot in the previous years with undiagnosed severe depression. Although the bipolar diagnosis was hard to live with he realized that he needed to accept it and learn to manage it. Writes my friend “He has encountered much condemnation and misjudgment from his church and Christian friends.” This is very discouraging because he knows how important a supportive church is if he is to walk closely with the Lord. Now he is looking for a church where the people will accept him and love him with Christ’s unconditional love so he can grow together with them.
This kind of story and I have heard many of them disturbs me deeply because I too have bipolar disorder. I can identify with this man and so know the need for understanding and compassion. I too struggle to manage my illness and often falter. In spite of good medications, I still have times when my strong moods break through and I suffer severely.
But I am fortunate. I have a church that is accepting, with very good friends and a pastor who have come to understand bipolar disorder. They support me through those many times when I’m up or down. My friends have learned about my disease through reading and through what I have told them about it. Although they’ll never fully understand what I go through, they try. I can talk to them and they encourage me, not trying to fix me, realizing that I’m doing the best I can. Thanks to them I have received the kind of unconditional love that Bill yearns for. They are enabling me to grow with them and, in turn, they grow with me.
How I wish it could be so for everyone who suffers from mental illness! The need for acceptance is great. The need to be encouraged in their faith is great.
People with mental illnesses like bipolar, schizophrenia, anxiety, and depression need a healing of their whole person their mind, body and spirit. They need care physically (including medical care), psychologically (perhaps including counselling), and spiritually through worship, prayer, and Bible study with others.
The church and educated Christian friends are in the best position to help fellow Christians in their struggles with mental health problems. It’s not easy, as any of you who have had to deal with mentally ill people will know. And with one in five people at some time of their life suffering from a mental illness, most of you will have had some experience trying to be supportive in some way. Although I do relatively well with my bipolar disorder, I know it isn’t always easy on my husband and friends. The effects of my ups and downs can be hard on them. But I’m hoping they have been rewarded by having seen me blossom into someone who is now able to help others.
With the encouragement of my pastor and friends I was able to start a peer support ministry we call Living Room. Through the website and manuals we have helped other people with mood disorders to start groups in their own churches. Now there are at least eleven groups in Canada helping people with mood disorders receive Christian support. This is one way churches can help.
Another valuable thing would be to have sermons occasionally referring to mental health issues and the needs of those who are mentally ill. When congregations hear their pastors speak openly about it, they will in turn feel freer to be open about problems they themselves or family members and friends might be having. The important thing is to make mental illness an okay thing to talk about, taking away feelings of shame.
Yes, I’m fortunate. I receive the benefit of loving support from my congregation. But there are many who don’t. For them the stigma is sometimes worse than the disorder itself. Will your church offer people like Bill or me a spiritual home? Will you offer us the Christian support we so desperately need?
In part two, I will show how Christians can give practical help to friends who are suffering from mental health problems.
Marja Bergen is a photographer and writer living in Burnaby, B.C. She is the author of Riding the Roller Coaster: Living with Mood Disorders (Northstone, 1999). and A Firm Place to Stand: Forty Years with Bipolar Disorder (2008). She is the founder and facilitator of Living Room, a faith-based mood disorder support group at Brentwood Park Alliance Church in Burnaby. Check out her blog.