You might think that I would be that pastor who is out in front, leading the charge to make the church a safe place to talk about mental illness, that guy who makes sure that my congregation carries out effective ministry to those with mental illness and their families. After all, I have been closely connected to mental illness my entire life.
I think both of my parents spent much of their adult life suffering from depression. My father’s depression was never diagnosed, at least as far as I know, and consequently, he never received any treatment. My mother’s depression was diagnosed, and some medication of the early generations of anti-depressants were prescribed — I remember her talking about Prozac — though I have no idea how faithful she was in taking her medication. When I was a pre-teen, my mother attempted suicide twice. An uncle went through decades of electro-convulsive therapy (ECT). An aunt had what my parents referred to as “a nervous breakdown.” Just what that was, we never really talked about. In the brief year between college and seminary, I spent a short time working at a university research hospital on the pysch floor as a pshychiatric technician; one of my responsibilities was to assist with ECT. Throughout my pastoral ministry, I have walked with and ministered to many families facing significant mental health issues. When approached, I have tried my best to be helpful.
Yet, despite all this, I have been complicit in the church’s silence about mental illness.
That’s the conclusion I have come to after reading Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission, by Amy Simpson.
Ms. Simpson begins by telling her own story of growing up as a preacher’s kid and of her mother’s descent into psychosis and the decades long impact that disease has had, not only on her mother, but the entire family. In fact, the entire book is peppered with firsthand accounts of mental illness in her own family and in the families of people she interviewed in writing this book.
After beginning with her own family story, she goes on to make the argument that mental illness is mainstream; nearly every family has to deal with it in some fashion. Yet as common as it is, there is a cultural code of silence, and still, there is a sense of shame about its invasive presence into our lives. I have found the same thing to be true in my own experience. As I start down the list of active families in the congregation I serve, it is remarkable how many of them are touched by diagnosed mental illness (not to mention the many more whose illness goes undiagnosed.) Yet somehow, still we operate in the church under the cultural code of silence.
The rest of the book is a systematic deepening of our understanding of mental illness and the variety of ways in which the church might be a beacon of hope for individuals and families dealing with mental illness. In no place does Simpson go into a lot of detail, but at every turn, I found helpful information that has broadened my understanding. From thumbnail sketches of the varieties of mental illness, to first hand accounts of what its like to suffer from mental illness, to the ways both individuals and families forge mechanisms for coping, to the extraordinarily difficult task of navigating the healthcare system to get proper treatment, the book provides the basics for individuals and congregations to be inspired and empowered to take action. I came away from this book with a renewed commitment that I am no longer going to be that pastor whose silence contributes to the stigma that mental illness carries. By my own commitment to speak, I am resolved to make the congregation I serve a safe place for those who suffer from mental illness and their families. By coming out of our silence, I’m hopeful that we will also begin to take action.