[This is a post which orginally appeared as a two-part post on the blog A New Name run by Emma Scrivener. It is by a dear Christian lady named Sharon Hastings who trained as a doctor before developing schizoaffective disorder. She lives in Northern Ireland. I am presenting it here with the permission of both Emma and Sharon, along with my comment on her second part. I am not presenting it in all its fullness but rather the majority of part one plus the entirety of part two. I am missing out the definitions of the severe mental illnesses as I disagree with these labels, these boxes psychiatrists place us in. The originals can be seen here: Part One – Part Two]
Severe Mental Illness and the Church – Part One – Sarah’s Story
“But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be.”1 Corinthians 12:18
Sarah is sitting alone in a back corner of the sanctuary. The service is over but she hasn’t gone for coffee. She’s wearing her sweater with the hood up over her head and she is covering her ears with her hands. Sarah is hearing voices. A scratchy whisper is repeating over and over again; “We’re going to get you. We’re going to get you…” She is also afraid to go home. She’s convinced that her living room has been bugged by secret police who know that she is going to commit a crime.
What is wrong with Sarah, and how would you help her?
The chances are that you’ve no idea. Maybe you haven’t encountered someone with this kind of problem before – Sarah has schizophrenia – and the idea of getting involved is actually a bit scary. Didn’t a paranoid schizophrenic commit that murder that was in the news last week?
Sadly, severe mental illness is rarely spoken of in our churches. We are quite comfortable talking about depression and anxiety, and – increasingly – about eating disorders and self-harm, and this is great. But I know that I have never heard a sermon which mentioned bipolar disorder, schizophrenia or schizoaffective disorder. These are sometimes known as the ‘severe and enduring’ mental illnesses: they have a life-changing and lifelong effect on people who suffer from them, and they are more common than you might think – a congregation of 200 members will, on average, have four to five people in it who have one of these diagnoses…people like Sarah, people like me.
Severe Mental Illness and the Church – Part Two – The Vital Place of Those with Severe Mental Health Issues Within the Church
When Paul wrote to the church at Corinth, he referred to it as the ‘body of Christ’, which had ‘many parts’ (1 Corinthians 12:27,12). He emphasised that every part – or person – in the church body was important:
“On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honourable we treat with special honour.”1 Corinthians 12:22-23
This means a lot to me. I have schizoaffective disorder – I am ‘weaker’, and schizoaffective disorder, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia are often stigmatised conditions – ‘less honourable’ in some people’s eyes, but Paul tells me that I am ‘indispensable’ in the church and have ‘special honour’.
Yet church can be hard and at times I feel far from indispensable and honoured.
I can be forgotten: I have spells in hospital when I am too ill to go to church for months. My behaviour at church can be a little strange: I may be over-excitable if I manic, I leave meetings early when I am feeling paranoid, and I withdraw from people if I am overwhelmed by depression. And I do feel stigmatised. It’s hard to tell someone that I have schizoaffective disorder. After all, people have commonly heard news stories about psychotic individuals who have committed crimes. This is understandably frightening, but people with psychosis are actually much more likely to be victims of crime than to be responsible for it.
I believe that I have found an important role in my church, however. I have seen that my openness about my condition and my testimony of God-inspired hope in the midst of severe mental illness has begun to help reduce stigma. It is my prayer that this will make a difference for others who also suffer.
So what about Sarah – how can you help?
Today, Sarah is clearly frightened and acutely unwell. She is suffering from hallucinations and delusions and is in need of professional support. Approach her calmly and gently, ask her if she is okay and what she is experiencing, and find out if she has someone to contact in an emergency. On a Sunday, this is likely to be her GP Out of Hours Service. Offer to help her to get in touch.
This will be easier if you already know Sarah. She is probably usually not so obvious, but – although her hood may be down – she is still likely to be on the margins of church life. Try to be aware of those who have severe mental illness in your congregation (remember that there might be five or six if you have 200 people) and reach out to them when they are not in crisis. Let them tell their stories and help them to stay involved in church activities, for example, by sitting with them or giving a lift to an event.
Pray for Sarah. Be careful if you are praying with her. Using ‘spiritual’ language such as asking God for ‘deliverance’ or to help overcome this ‘stronghold’ in her life may feed into her delusions and make her feel like she is demon-possessed rather than a sick and hurting daughter of the King. Keep it simple and she will appreciate your sensitivity.
Look after her carers. You may know Sarah’s family or other close connections. At a time of crisis like this – when Sarah may well have to be admitted to hospital – they will be feeling the strain. If you can offer a hot meal or to walk their dogs, it will mean a lot. Pray for them too.
Stay in touch during the week. If Sarah is in hospital, her days will be long, and a short visit will break the monotony and remind her that she is loved. If she is at home, she might have visiting nurses, but Christian fellowship is still important, and she will probably be glad to see a familiar face. Perhaps you could share a scripture you have found helpful when you’ve been struggling too (we all have in some way!) – perhaps a lament from Job or David (“How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart?” Psalm 13:2), or encouragement to think of ‘what is noble…right…pure…(and) lovely,’ from Paul (Philippians 8:8).
Learn about mental illness. You are doing this right now! Armed with some understanding, you will be better equipped to help when things get difficult for Sarah or others. For example, the Royal College of Psychiatrists (UK) has excellent online resources to inform you.
When you know more about illnesses like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, you can help to dispel the stigma. Share your knowledge with others and suggest that your pastor or minister runs a special service close to World Mental Health Day (10th October).
If one part is honoured, we all rejoice.
Paul tells us that, “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honoured, every part rejoices with it.” (1 Corinthian 12:26)
Thank you for reading this blog and showing that you care about people like Sarah. I hope that you feel enabled to go forward in your journey towards helping those who suffer from severe mental illness. By encouraging them as they grow in Christ, you can foster their unique gifts in ministering to others. I know that I am indebted to those who have done this for me, and that my church body now rejoices in my good times.
An “Insane” Man’s Comment
[This is the comment I made on the second part of Sharon’s post as it appeared on A New Name.]
As a fellow “freak,” as a fellow “weirdo,” I want to address this comment to the hero of your post and I hope that you may pass on my thoughts as appropriate.
Thank you! The stigma surrounding severe mental health issues remains huge and is, sadly, prevalent far beyond its proper measure in the church. The only way this stigma can be broken is through people like you – the “highly honoured” and “indispensable” members of the Body.
Thank you for presenting from a Christian perspective the story of Vincent Van Gogh, of Joan of Arc, of Nostramdamus, of King James I of England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales and France, of Rasputin and so so many more.
Although I differ greatly in my views on the role of health professionals I do agree so much with the approach outlined here that the Church should take. Can anyone who has not experienced schizophrenia, bipolar or schizoaffective disorder understand? No. People can try. They can sympathise. They can care, they can support and most of all they can love. But truly understand? No. How can you explain to someone that you are currently battling the host of demonic forces in your bedroom so cannot spare the time for dinner tonight? How can you explain that Jesus has just spoken to you and that you must spend the night on a hilltop to see if He will come back tonight and then go back to your family for breakfast as you try to figure out why He didn’t come when you thought He had told you that he was at the door?
I have just, this past week, been discharged from a brief stay at the local nuthouse. I was taken from the streets shortly after nightfall and bundled into the back of an unmarked police car. I was taken to the hospital and kept in a secluded room with no clear windows, no visitors and no means of contact with anyone except my captors. I was forced face down upon my bed and painfully injected with chemicals at least twice. I think I was in that seclusion for two days, though I am unsure, and then I was transferred to a proper psychiatric ward.
Speaking with nurses during my “calming down” phase I was informed that I was the most unwell patient in that seclusion room that they had ever come across. That was two weeks ago. During my week and a half in hospital the doctors, nurses and myself discussed my treatment and medication on a mutual respect basis. I made it clear that I would not be treated any other way and after 25 years of diagnosed mental disorders and extensive research I have a very good understanding of the treatments, medications and laws applicable to mental health patients.
I am now on 7.5mg daily of Olanzapine. (Prior to my admittance to hospital I had come off completely, and prior to my weaning off the medication I was on 20mg daily of escitalopram and 17.5mg daily of Olanzapine. I have now returned to a semblance of sanity.) I regard that brief stay in the DOP as a necessary “rebalancing” which has enabled me once more to survive in the world, feed myself and care for those around me. But what is sanity?
Was Peter sane when, as he was told by the Way, the Truth and the Life that he would deny the Son of God his response was that though everyone else may deny Him he would never do so! And then some 24 hours later denied Him three times and then went outside to sob uncontrollably and inconsolably!
Those with serious mental illness are gifted. Gifted beyond measure of understanding by others. An Orthodox friend of mine told me that I had been blessed with a curse and said that “the words ‘blessing’ and ‘curse’ are actually insufficient in these situations.” Yes, we feel such pain, sometimes torment. And yes, often, too often, we end up bringing others into our circle of pain. Yet we also have an insight, a gift, which the Church ignores at its peril.
Thank you, Sarah! Thank you! And thank you, Sharon, for bringing Sarah’s story to my eyes and heart.