Ending the Stigma of Mental Illness in the Church
What can we do to end the stigma of mental illness in the church? Earlier this month, Tyndale Counselling Services hosted the “Mental Health in the Christian Community Symposium” to address this daunting question. Dr. Victor Shepherd, Professor of Theology at Tyndale Seminary and long-time advocate of people with mental illnesses says, “We have to recognize that the person is suffering, and suffering atrociously. She isn’t behaving the way she does because she enjoys being socially awkward or because she prefers government assistance to gainful employment. She is suffering.”
According to Dr. Shepherd, not only do people with mental illnesses suffer on account of the nature of their sickness, but also from numerous fears that are reinforced by a Christian culture that can’t seem to break the stigma.
These fears, which he calls “second-order” suffering, can come in the form of the guilt people with mental illnesses feel when they are told – by other Christians – that their sickness stems from their failure to ‘pray enough’ or their failure to ‘trust in Jesus.’” Dr. Shepherd goes on to say that there is also often an ungrounded fear that the psychiatrist who is treating them “is going to take away their faith,” or that medication will somehow “steal their identity,” making them “unrecognizable.”
Summarizing how the church should respond to this tragedy, Dr. Shepherd quotes Luther in his sermon on John 16: “The sum of this Gospel is that Christ the Lord reveals Himself to His own as pure loving friendship so that they are comforted.” The church is to befriend and love those suffering with mental illness for the purpose of bringing them comfort and healing.
With 150 in attendance, the symposium included four presentations, two testimonies, a panel discussion and a hallway brimming with the displays and representatives of mental health service providers from the community.
Sheila Stevens, Director of Tyndale Counselling Services, believes that education plays a major role in ending the stigma. “We are excited to offer this symposium and to have a working group addressing these issues. By educating future pastors and church leaders right here in the university and seminary, our hope is that it will filter out into the churches and community.”
She notes that there are still many untreated people suffering with mental illness looking for help in the church. Our role as Christians should go beyond the generic “I will pray for you” response. Instead, we should know the “signs” of those suffering with mental illness and move to ‘befriend and comfort’ them as Christ would.