Meaningful engagement with the Mentally Unwell
by Matt Cairns
Research shows that one in five Australians will experience a mental illness, and most of us will experience a mental health problem during our lifetime. A mental illness is an acute health problem that significantly affects how a person feels, thinks, behaves, and interacts with other people. It is diagnosable by medical professionals and can be treated like other health conditions in order for the person to lead a productive and healthy life. People with mental health issues engage in all aspects of life, including attending and participating in church life. Sadly the treatment that the mentally unwell experience in the wider community – exclusion, fearfulness, and withdrawal of social interaction – is often mirrored by their engagement in the church. So how can we as a church family engage with the mentally unwell in a way that both supports and empowers those in our Corps family suffering from mental illness?
In the Social Justice Department we use a model shaped around how Jesus interacted with people called “Jesus and Justice”, and this provides four principles that can help guide our discussion on how to better support those in our church family who are experiencing mental health issues.
But firstly – a short note on respect and privacy. The following suggestions are provided in order to help individuals and Corps support the mentally unwell. However for any concept that involves interacting in a personal way, it is important to do so sensitively and ensuring that the person’s privacy is always respected. Those with mental illness are more often than not happy to engage, but this has to be their choice. So always check first and never assume.
Including the Excluded – People with mental illnesses are often isolated and excluded from social settings. A report found that 69% of people with mental illnesses felt isolated and lonely ‘often to all the time’, yet the same report found that 88% of sufferers saw social relationships as ‘important to very important’ in managing their illness. We need to be like Jesus who constantly included the excluded such as lepers, tax collectors, women, and children. When society excludes the mentally unwell, we must be Jesus and include them. Here are some ways we can do that in our Corps:
- Don’t sideline those with mental illnesses from mission work as this only further alienates and isolates these vulnerable people who are suffering. Instead look to creatively adapt ministry opportunities to include them in the work of God’s kingdom.
- Visit, care for, and journey with those in your church family who have a mental illness – just as you would someone with any other illness. Pray for peace and healing, cook them a meal, support them by taking them to medical appointments, ask them how they are going and what you can do to help out – just as you would for someone with a broken leg or an eye infection or bad flu.
Create genuine friendships with those who have a mental illness. They have hopes and dreams just like you. They have concerns and fears just like you. They have hobbies and interests just like you. So be a friend – a genuine friend who loves them for who they are.
Challenging Cultural Practices – The mentally unwell have a certain stereotype within our society and it’s not an accurate or helpful one. Often they are placed in the ‘too-hard-to-handle’ basket and left to their own devices to wade through a difficult illness. Jesus often challenged harmful cultural practices (like rejecting harmful stereotypes of Samaritans), and we as ambassadors for Jesus must do likewise. We must redefine how our society views and treats the mentally unwell, and this can begin with some of these first-steps:
- We need to treat those who are unwell with respect and dignity. Too often people with mental illness are regarded as ‘different’ to the rest of us. We need to stop this and remember that those with mental illness are people like you and me and are not just defined by their illness.
- We need to confront the various stereotypes imposed on people with mental illnesses and remove the stigma around mental health. Most people suffering from mental illness are not violent or unstable, but are just trying to make it through the day keeping their health under control. In a similar category is the idea that mentally unwell people are not functional, which for the most part is completely untrue. They function well in society, often working extremely hard to ensure their illness doesn’t disrupt their responsibilities. Another common stereotype is that people with mental illnesses wish to keep this private. For some this is the case, but not for everyone. Don’t assume that because someone is struggling with a mental illness that they don’t want to talk about it. Engage with them, ask them how they are going and is there anything you can support them with. Mental illness can be an isolating and lonely health condition, but we as a church family need to rise above the stereotypes and be real and connected to those in our community who are dealing with this illness.
We need to move out of our comfort zones! Those with mental illnesses are people just like you and me and have needs just like anyone else, so talk to them – do life with them. We need to be the counter-balance to a culture that so often isolates the mentally unwell – we need to bring them into the house and treat them as family for that is what they are.
Confronting the Powerful – You might think that I’m about to discuss governments or businesses not treating those with mental illnesses well. But I’m not. Because in the context of this discussion, the powerful is anyone who is not suffering from a mental illness. Having a mental illness automatically makes you vulnerable, differing from ‘the rest of us’ who are healthy – we judge you, we talk about you but not to you, we can think clearly when perhaps you‘re having trouble doing so, we can take advantage of your situation, and the list goes on. So, in regards to how we treat those with mental illness, we need to acknowledge the power is in our hands and then confront ourselves about our behaviour. Doing this will open up new and genuine ways in which we can support the mentally unwell. Here are a few ways to help start that process:
- Get educated about mental health illnesses so that you are prepared! This includes talking openly about mental health within your Corps, in a positive and constructive manner. Being educated and prepared means that when someone with a mental illness steps into your hall or centre, you will be ready to show love and support, rather than keeping them at arm’s length that so often happens because we don’t know what to do.
- Limit yourself to your skills. If you happen to be a medical professional with mental health expertise then great – provide advice about their condition. But if you’re a pastor then be a pastor to them. If you’re a cook, then cook for them. If you’re a prayer warrior, then fantastic – pray deeply for them. It is perfectly okay for you just to be a friend and not a counsellor or medical guru. In fact – it is preferable.
Humble yourself and be honest in your feelings towards those with mental illnesses. It can be very confronting, but entering into a relationship with a false sense of what you can do will end up damaging both yourself and the other person. That process needs to start now so that you can be prepared to journey alongside someone when the time comes.
Advocating for the Oppressed – As already highlighted, those suffering from mental illness are often treated poorly and without respect and dignity. We, as the church, must forge a new way to engage with the mentally unwell – one based upon Jesus’ call love one another. We can express this love in many ways:
- Be patient with the mentally unwell and advocate for patience from your Corps family. Those struggling with a mental illness often have trouble clarifying thoughts and need time and support to express themselves clearly. Be patient with that process and show grace and openness to help them express themselves as best they can. Recently I witnessed the testimony of a lady with a mental illness who struggled for five minutes to simply say “She loves Jesus and Jesus loves her”, but it was the most God-glorifying five minutes I’ve witnessed in a long time. No-one from the church hurried her up, no-one tried to shut her down, but instead they cheered and affirmed her in the most beautiful of ways, patiently allowing her to give God glory, to the best of her current ability. We must to be advocates of patience for our mentally unwell family members.
- Mobilise your Corps – we are an Army! So let’s be loud and affirming advocates for the mentally unwell in our community. So many times they are let down by our wider society, often stigmatised by the stereotypes mentioned above, so let us be a voice for those who cannot always express their needs. Let us advocate for the weary, oppressed, down-trodden, and lonely.
Develop good resources around mental health and provide these to your Corps family. Again it is about being prepared, changing our mindset around mental health, and being ready to welcome all into the house of God.
Suffering from a mental illness can be frightening and isolating, and even more so when we feel judgement rather than support. We in the Church must change our thinking around mental health, engaging in positive ways when the world is so negative. We must follow the lead of Jesus. In the sphere of mental health this means including the excluded, challenging cultural practices, confronting the powerful, and advocating for the oppressed.
“So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.” Galatians 6:10
 ‘What is Mental Health’, Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing.
*Note: This article was first published in the November 2016 edition of Pipeline Magazine (www.salvos.org.au/pipeline)