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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.


Join our Twitter chat about #mental illness on April 29 at noon.  We'll discuss symptoms and how you can help those suffering.  Follow us @VisitorNews and tweet your questions/comments to #VisitorChat.

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.

Lifting the Veil

Eliminating the stigma associated with mental illness is the first step. Simpson notes that many Christians have an “illusion of safety” and feel that “Christian faith inoculates against troubles like mental illness” (Troubled Minds, p. 148).

Jude Boyer-Patrick, an Adventist psychiatrist and medical director for the Good Shepherd Medical Center in Baltimore, agrees. “Mental illness is an equal opportunity illness. Every one of us goes through something at one time or another,” she says. “But, when the brain snaps, that’s it. You are in recovery. Period. Some may even be on medications for life.”

Gavin also adds that families often feel a great sense of shame and guilt. “They may wonder, ‘Why did God do this to us?’” he notes. Sadly, church members can place additional burdens on the family. “Unfortunately, our response is often denial, minimization, ignoring or giving responses that actually tend to hurt like: ‘You just need to pray harder,’ or ‘Is there sin in your life that you aren’t dealing with?’ That’s the worst thing anyone can ever say to someone dealing with mental illness,” Gavin says.

Dr. Boyer-Patrick, a member of Allegheny East Conference’s Capitol Hill church in Washington, D.C., notes another obstacle members face: a great mistrust in treatment from mental health professionals. She believes congregants “will often misquote Ellen White in support of not seeking treatment, or say ‘you just need to follow the eight laws [of health]’ and think that’s all you have to do,” she says.

This isn’t uncommon thinking. A 2012 survey of evangelical Christians conducted by Lifeway Research found that 35 percent of Americans and 48 percent of evangelicals believed that people with serious mental disorders could overcome their illnesses “with Bible study and prayer alone” (Christianity Today, September 17, 2013).

“Mental illness is not devil possession,” emphasizes Boyer-Patrick. “The mind is a complex, complex thing that we are still learning about. There is lamentable ignorance in our churches about [it]. Folks need to know that it’s okay to get help.”

Where to Begin

 Jimmy Munoz, discipleship pastor; Monique Keene-King; Damein Johnson, senior pastor; and Jeremiah Green, youth pastor Seabrook Counseling Team: Jimmy Munoz, discipleship pastor; Monique Keene-King; Damein Johnson, senior pastor; and Jeremiah Green, youth pastor

Gavin and Boyer-Patrick have suggestions for congregations who want to help those affected:

  • “Just start talking about the issues,” Gavin says. “Provide forums for discussion and questions.” He also recommends inviting local mental health representatives to conduct workshops and seminars.
  • Establish an in-church counseling ministry like the one operated by Potomac Conference’s Seabrook church in Lanham, Md..
  • Support groups are another option. “These can be a viable ministry for some churches, provided that you have a professional who is trained in group facilitation,” Gavin says.
  • Boyer-Patrick adds a cautionary note, “In today’s society, where there is so much litigation and liability issues, you’d have to tread a fine line.” Instead, she suggests congregations serve as resource centers, providing links to local services and information that can be easily accessed.

The bottom line: do something. All congregations can be understanding, compassionate and empathetic. Learn to listen. And, above all, remind those affected that God has not abandoned them.


It's amazing how God brings a subject repeatedly to my attention. Mental illness is surfacing more and more in our sinful world and the church is not exempt. More and more we are seeing disturbing evidences that make us long for Jesus to come sooner and apply the most effective solution to the mess of sin. Beautiful people are going missing. Confused people are killing their own loved ones and harming themselves. Families and children and parents and whole churches and communities are impacted. We cannot afford to ignore this problem because it is not going away but actually becoming worse!

The good news is that all this did not take God by surprise. There are a lot of good and helpful resources out there, and God has equipped His church, the Seventh-day Adventist church with the cure even before the complication we now are facing. It's OK to read other books, but please, I implore you to study the two volume set of Mind, Character, and Personality by our prophet Ellen G. White and other resources like Ministry of Healing, and please search the site for “insanity.” Here's an excerpt from Ministry of Healing:

"We are living in the midst of an 'epidemic of crime,' at which thoughtful, God-fearing men everywhere stand aghast. The corruption that prevails, it is beyond the power of the human pen to describe. Every day brings fresh revelations of political strife, bribery, and fraud. Every day brings its heart-sickening record of violence and lawlessness, of indifference to human suffering, of brutal, fiendish destruction of human life. Every day testifies to the increase of insanity, murder, and suicide. Who can doubt that satanic agencies are at work among men with increasing activity to distract and corrupt the mind, and defile and destroy the body?"—The Ministry of Healing, 142, 143.

And a 2MCP quote:
Mind, Character, and Personality Volume 2, Page 441
Chapter 47—Mental Hygiene
[See chapter 42, “Mind and Health.”]

"Health is a blessing of which few appreciate the value; yet upon it the efficiency of our mental and physical powers largely depends. Our impulses and passions have their seat in the body, and it must be kept in the best condition physically and under the most spiritual influences in order that our talents may be put to the highest use. Anything that lessens physical strength enfeebles the mind and makes it less capable of discriminating between right and wrong."—The Review and Herald, June 20, 1912. (Messages to Young People, 235.)

God alone is able...As He has us interact with and minister to those who are suffering, as He brings them to His ark of safety, we need to continually recognize that mental illness is another type of suffering in this sinful world. He wants us to help people who are suffering from the effects of life in a sinful world, and to lead them to the. prince of Peace. As we follow the great physician's plan and will, He will heal and help through us. I agree that one of the best tools to help us understand all of the maladies that can occur because of sin are the writings of Sister White. What a blessed gift that The Lord has given us. We also need to be able to help those in the church that do not understand the basic ramifications of mental illness, so that those who are suffering will be ministered to and not avoided. We truly need the Lord's love and guidance to deal with all of these matters. He is desperately seeking to alleviate pain and suffering and desires to use us as His instruments of health and peace. Help us Lord to be a blessing to others as we abide in you and Youin us.

I am both a believer and an international gospel artist that has suffered with mental illness for years, after being raped as a child. It's easy to say what you should and shouldn't do when you've never dealt with depression. The bible says we perish for the lack of knowledge of Him and in a multitude of counsel there is safety. It wasn't until I was able to identify what was going on with me, pray and ask God for direction, Him directing me to natural counsel, eating right, excercise and constant communion with Him that I was able to start being in control and helping others. Mental illness is real and should not be taken lightly. Pastor's committing suicide is evidence that we need both natural and spiritual balance in dealing with this. The great news is that God gifts us with both natural and spiritual wisdom and understanding. Check out my video blog on Youtube Lisa McClendon WINNING THE FIGHT AGAINST DEPRESSION!
Stay blessed everyone!
Lisa McClendon

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We don't have specific discussion boards, but you could join this Facecbook conversation ( and Tweet with some of the participants in our #VisitorChat in April. (Search for #VisitorChat and you'll see some great experts on the topic).

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