Mental Illness

How Can Congregations Respond?

by Marja Bergen

I received an e-mail recently from a friend, who was concerned about an acquaintance of his, Bill, with a new diagnosis of bipolar illness. Bill had suffered greatly in the previous years. Although the bipolar diagnosis was hard to accept, he realized that he needed to learn to manage it. For me, these were the most painful words from the e-mail, “He has encountered much condemnation and misjudgment from his church and Christian friends.” I was very discouraged because a supportive church is vital if he is to walk closely with the Lord. Now he is looking for a church where people will accept him and love him with Christ’s unconditional love. He needs a place to heal and to grow.

This kind of story – and I have heard many of them – disturbs me deeply because I too have bipolar disorder. I can identify with this man. I know the need for understanding and compassion. I also struggle to manage my illness and often falter. In spite of good medications, I still have times when my strong moods break through, and I suffer severely.

But I am fortunate. I have a church that is accepting, with very good friends and a pastor who has come to understand bipolar disorder. They support me through those many times when I’m up or down. My friends have learned about my disease through reading and through what I have told them about it. Although they’ll never fully understand what I go through, they try. I can talk to them and they encourage me, not trying to fix me, realizing that I’m doing the best I can. Thanks to them I have received the kind of unconditional love that Bill yearns for. They are enabling me to grow with them, and in turn, they grow with me.

The church and educated Christian friends are in the best position to help fellow Christians in their struggles with mental health problems. It’s not easy, as any of you who have had to deal with mentally ill people well know. Although I do relatively well with my bipolar disorder, I know it isn’t always easy on my husband and friends. The effects of my ups and downs can be hard on them. But I’m hoping they have been rewarded by having seen me blossom into someone who is now able to help others.

There are some practical things you can do to help a friend with depression. They’re similar to what you would do to help physically ill people. You would ask them how their day is going. You might bring them a casserole. You might give them a call once in a while, telling them you’re thinking of them and praying for them. We who live with mental illness need the same things. We might need a ride to the doctor or help shopping for groceries. A reminder of scripture could help, perhaps a verse that might have helped you during trials. Going for a walk with us would be therapeutic. A hug now and then could do wonders.

At times I feel ashamed for things I’ve done or how I’ve reacted to situations. It’s hard to live with myself. Then I need Christ’s unconditional love, shown to me through my friends. It’s then that I need to be reminded that God forgives. I need to be reminded that everyone is broken in some way, even when they don’t have a mental disorder.

This is Christ-like giving at its best. This kind of care gives me comfort. And when, through my friends, I receive God’s comfort in this way, I am able to comfort others who suffer as I do.

My prayer is that others who live with mental illnesses will receive the kind of care I’ve received from my Christian friends. My prayer is that Christians will learn more about mental health issues and how to support those who suffer emotionally. There are many of us, and we need you.

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