He bowed his head and started mumbling a prayer that made no sense to me. The string of words exited his mouth and floated off like bubbles blown by a young child into the warm, humid air around me.
While he was still saying his prayer, I got up, walked to my car and drove away. I’m sure he was not prepared to interact with me — most people wouldn’t be prepared for that. But I never heard back from him.
Even after my mania had subsided, he didn’t send an email asking how I was feeling. He didn’t call. None of our elders or other leaders reached out to me either.
It’s a warm Sunday in May. The morning sun shines through the stained-glass windows. I’m squeezed into the crowded pew with my husband and our two children.
I notice in the worship bulletin that the pastor will be preaching on joy. I immediately began judging a sermon I haven’t heard one word of yet because I sometimes struggle with depression.
The Scripture for this morning was John 16:16-24. The pastor read the verses aloud and said a short prayer. As soon as he began talking through his main points, I braced myself for the disappointment I knew was coming. I suspected he wouldn’t take this opportunity to discuss things such as depression and anxiety in the Christian life.
I was right.
Although much of what he said was good and biblical, he didn’t mention mental illness. Instead, he said if you aren’t experiencing joy, you should examine your life and repent of any sin that might be blocking it.
About 1,000 people heard his sermon. Approximately 200 of those 1,000 could experience some form of mental illness this year. So 200 people may feel shame and guilt because of this sermon.
I glanced at my 13-year-old daughter. She seemed zoned out and disengaged. She has suffered from depression and anxiety for more than a year. I wondered how this sermon has affected her. Was she as frustrated as I am?
On our way home, I think about my friend Allison (her name has been changed for this essay), who is recovering from a mental health crisis that peaked in March. She was diagnosed with bipolar II and is trying to get her meds straight and process how this will affect her life. She is confused and trying to heal. The sermon I just heard wouldn’t offer her any hope.
Later that day, I count how many friends I’ve sent Psalm 88 to in the past year. I come up with five. Psalm 88 is the only psalm that doesn’t include any verses of praise or thanksgiving. There are 149 others that do, and I pray through those psalms, too.
But Psalm 88 is sometimes the one I need. It gives me the language I need to speak to God when He seems far away. So I send it to those who may also need that language. I pray it for my friends who can’t imagine how God can be anywhere near them.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, one in five adults — approximately 43.8 million Americans — experiences mental illness in a given year. One in 25 — about 10 million — live with a serious mental illness such as schizophrenia, major depression or bipolar disorder. NAMI also says approximately 21.4 percent of youth ages 13 to 18 experience severe mental disorders at some point during their life.
Some statistics to couple with that information come from a 2014 study done by LifeWay Research. Their findings show that only 38 percent of pastors in the United States strongly agree that they feel equipped to identify a person dealing with acute mental illness that may require a referral to a medical professional.
And 49 percent of pastors rarely or never speak to their church in sermons or large group messages about acute mental illness. Of the remaining 51 percent of pastors who do speak about mental illness in sermons or large group messages, 16 percent of them mention mental illness only once each year. That leaves just 35 percent of pastors who talk about mental illness several times a year.
I’ve been a Christian for 21 years. None of my pastors have ever mentioned mental illness in a substantive way in a sermon or during a church-wide meeting. Maybe one pastor has touched on mental illness in a few of his sermons.
I’ve never heard a pastor discuss the role the church should play in caring for those with mental illness. During times that I’ve been ill since I was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a pastor has never reached out to me.
Two days ago, I printed out a copy of Psalm 88 for my daughter. I wrote a note at the top of the page that said, “God gives us room to doubt and struggle and be angry. I pray you will turn to Him in your suffering.” I gave this to her because her depression and anxiety have intensified. We are seeking a higher level of care for her because what we’ve done over the past year hasn’t worked.
We have been visiting a new church, so we aren’t deeply connected to a faith community right now. I reached out to a few people at that church about our daughter, and they have shown support for our family.
I met with the junior high youth director. Another staff member who is also a friend of ours invited us over for dinner to discuss our current struggles and encourage us. Another staff member has called us to check in several times.
Everyone expresses a desire to care for our daughter. Everyone assures us of God’s love for us. They are in this with us.
Allison is healthier now and willing and able to speak into my current situation with my daughter. She tells me to care for myself, to take my meds, to sleep, to eat. She speaks truth to me when I want to blame myself for my daughter’s condition. She prays for me. And she invites my daughter to spend some time with her.
Since Allison’s mental health crisis started several months ago, no one from her church has offered to pray with her about it or has asked questions about how her illness is affecting her faith. The leadership of her church has been mostly silent about struggles with her new diagnosis.
Amy Simpson, author of “Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission,” said in an interview with Rachel Held Evans that talking about mental illness “is a great place to start and might accomplish 50 percent of what people need from the church. For people isolated by stigma and fear, it’s powerful to hear an acknowledgement that this kind of suffering exists, that it doesn’t mean God has abandoned them, and that people in the church might be willing to walk through it with them.”
Here are some ways pastors can address mental illness in the church: They can mention mental illness while preaching on joy. They can have congregational meetings or send church-wide emails to introduce the topic. They can acknowledge that those who suffer from mental illness may not be able to experience joy at times, and it’s not because they are in sin.
Pastors can also reach out to mentally ill members. And when those members are too depressed or anxious to respond, they can keep reaching out.
Pastors can help address spiritual crises that often accompany mental illness. They can create environments in their churches where people talk about mental illness with as much ease as they talk about diabetes or broken limbs.
Church leaders don’t need to carry the full weight of caring for their mentally ill members. They can encourage friends and family members of those struggling with mental illness to care for and support their loved ones. They can identify those in their churches who have suffered from and recovered from mental illness and ask them to serve alongside church leadership as they provide care.
What has happened in my relationship with Allison can happen in churches that desire to minister to those with mental illness. The church can be a conduit of God’s goodness to those who are sick and scared.
Charlotte Donlon lives in Birmingham, Ala., with her husband and their two children. She’s earning her MFA in creative writing from Seattle Pacific University. Find her at charlottedonlon.com and @charlottedonlon.