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Can Churches Help Erase the Stigma of Mental Illness?

One out of every four adults you greeted in church last week with an enthusiastic “Happy Sabbath!” could either be suffering from a form of mental illness or taking an antipsychotic drug. What can we do to help?

Story by Debra McKinney Banks

One out of every four adults you greeted in church last week with an enthusiastic “Happy Sabbath!” could either be suffering from a form of mental illness or taking an antipsychotic drug. What can we do to help?

According to the National Institutes of Mental Health, within any given year in the United States, “approximately one quarter of adults are diagnosable for one or more” mental disorders. Additionally, nearly half of Americans aged 18 and older are afflicted with mental illness at some time in their life, with the average age of onset being 14.

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The National Alliance on Mental Illness defines mental illness as a “medical condition that disrupts a person’s thinking, feeling, mood, ability to relate to others and daily functioning” and “often results in a diminished capacity for coping with the ordinary demands of life,” such as anxiety and eating disorders or depression. While serious mental illness is less common (affecting about 1 in 17 adults), this is a reality that impacts people and families in our pews.

In her book Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission, Amy Simpson, a managing editor for Today’s Christian Woman magazine, discusses the social disruption that mental illness can cause in churches: “Because [the church is] full of imperfect and sinful people, the community in churches often feels fragile and finds itself sustained by polite behavior and exaggerated piety. … In such an environment, people with mental illness sometimes upset the balance and intimidate the rest of the community with unpredictable and socially unacceptable behavior. And, while people might show patience with a short-term difficulty, the prospect of ongoing interaction with someone suffering from a chronic mental illness may be more than most people feel they can endure.”

Raising Awareness

Seventh-day Adventist Church leaders on the frontlines of Health Ministries are attempting to initiate conversations and bring light to this topic. In October 2011, Loma Linda University (Calif.) and the General Conference hosted a four-day emotional health and wholeness symposium.

Last spring Katia Reinert, Health Ministries director for the North American Division (NAD), represented the Adventist Church at the National Conference on Mental Health at the White House. While there, Reinert shared upcoming plans to promote mental health understanding and education throughout the NAD’s 5,400 churches. She will work with Adventist HealthCare, in Gaithersburg, Md., on a 2015 mental health conference. She’ll also collaborate with the Review and Herald Publishing Association in Hagerstown, Md., to produce a 2015 youth devotional focused on emotional and mental health and a special issue of Vibrant Life magazine.

Reinert also recently established a mental health taskforce to develop additional strategies and programs.

Interestingly, church leaders are emphasizing another point: no one organization or ministry can do it alone. John Gavin, associate director and chair of the social work program at Washington Adventist University in Takoma Park, Md., notes that education, training of members and church leaders, as well as pooling resources, knowledge and expertise from a wide berth of disciplines and ministries—Adventist and otherwise—are all essential to supporting individuals and families in our churches suffering with mental illness.