A new national study from Baylor University showed that while some families with mentally ill members look to the church for help, their needs often go unnoticed.
The survey found that help from the church with depression and mental illness was a high priority of church families with mental illness, but it ranked much lower, at 42, on the list of requests from church families who did not have someone with mental illness, said the study’s co-author Dr. Matthew Stanford, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Baylor University, an expert in mental illness and the church.
The study sample (gathered between 2008 and 2010) was composed of 24 protestant congregations of varying sizes spread across 10 states.
Congregations included Baptists — Cooperative Baptists, Southern Baptists, National Baptists and Missionary Baptists — as well as Church of Christ, nondenominational and Lutheran. Six thousand people participated in the survey, according to a Baylor University release available online at tinyurl.com/baylorstudy.
“The best thing church members can do is educate themselves,” said Lee, who also is president of the Tyler chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information website, “schizophrenia is a complex mental disorder that makes it difficult to tell the difference between real and unreal experiences, think logically, have normal emotional responses or behave normally in social situations.”
“Many people are afraid to come forward because of the stigma,” Tyler radio personality Cynther Jones said. Ms. Jones has a segment on her radio show, “Mental Health Spotlight,” in which she interviews people living with mental illnesses and professionals who treat it. The segment was one of the biggest factors in her nomination for a Stellar Award last year, which recognizes African-American gospel artists and radio hosts.
“The mentally ill go to clergy first, time and time again,” Stanford said. “For one thing, it’s hard to get in to see a professional, so the clergy will act as a gatekeeper. The problem is, (clergy) don’t refer. It’s not thought of as an illness; it’s spiritual rather than psychological.
“We’ve found 40 percent of Christians who go to a pastor or a church for help are told ‘You don’t have a mental illness, because there’s no such thing as mental illness.’”
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, about one-fourth of adults are diagnosable for one or more disorders in a given year, and those numbers are the same within the church, Stanford said. Beliefs about mental illness are not specific to denomination, but the more conservative the individual, the more likely he or she is to see it as a spiritual problem than as a chemical imbalance, Stanford said.
“If one in four people had the flu, the church would respond,” Stanford said.
There is a lack of understanding of mental illness in the general public as well as the church, and a spiritual stigma associated with mental illnesses, Stanford said.
“Pastoral counseling is seen as an equivalent to taking medication,” he said.
Many times, Christians are hesitant to see a psychologist, because they fear what they’re told will conflict with their religious beliefs, Stanford said.
“Pastors and Christians are fearful, because they think psychologists will affirm sin,” Stanford said. “For example, they may say, ‘It’s OK to get divorced; it’s OK to be homosexual,’ so Christians think they should stay away from them.”
Along with congregations being better educated about how mental illness works, Stanford said there are practical ways for church members to offer support.
“The church has a huge role to play,” he said. “Just like we run to the aid of someone diagnosed with cancer or having a baby, we can help families of someone struggling with mental illness.”
Stanford suggested people can help by doing things such as baking casseroles or mowing their lawns, which go a long way to relieve some of the stress family members go through, he said.
“We hear testimonies in church all the time, but who has ever heard a testimony from someone who says ‘I have bipolar disorder and the church really helped me’?”