Sunday, October 9, 2011

Losing Their Religion: Families Dealing with Mental Illness

It's official. Churches overall are not providing services to families dealing with mental illness.  And people are leaving the church and their faith behind as a result.

A study by Baylor University, released in June and published in the journal Mental Health, Religion and Culture, found these results. Baylor, which is a private Christian university, surveyed nearly 6,000 participants in 24 churches representing four Protestant denominations. It was apparently the first study to explore how the mental illness of a family member influences an individual's relationship with the church.

As you may know, I am a member of Vineyard Columbus, which has allowed me and my co-leader, to develop a small group ministry for families dealing with mental illness. Our group, Loving Someone with Mental Illness, meets in Columbus at the Vineyard Cooper Road campus at 7 p.m. on the first and third Thursdays, except in November.

This group and ministry came after decades of involvement in two other churches that did little or nothing to support the families of the mentally ill. Evidently that's the norm.

The study found that families who are dealing with mental illness tend to have less involvement in faith practices, but they did want the congregation to help them.  In our group, Job One is to help these families ... and let's face it, it's usually Mom ... to develop the kind of faith practices that allow them to survive and even thrive.

But the families are basically invisible to most churches, even though the survey found that ... believe it or not ... 27 percent of families surveyed were dealing with mental illness.  Those families had double the number of stressors, including financial strain and work-life balance issues, compared to families that did not deal with the mental illness of a family member.

Families dealing with mental illness ranked the need for the church to provide help for dealing with depression and mental illness as second ... No. 2 ... in priority.  Families without mental illness ranked it 42nd. Dr. Matthew Stanford, a professor of psychology and neuroscien at Baylor, said, "The data gives the impress that mental illness, while prevalent within a congregation, is also nearly invisible."

Baylor called for churches to work with mental health providers to help raise awareness in the church community and offer more assistant to struggling families. PsychCentral's Therese J. Borchard suggested that churches take five steps toward improvement:

  1. Get educated about mental illness.
  2. Talk about it.
  3. Create support groups.
  4. Provide literature to the congregation about it.
  5. Host a special service. 
Jesus must be quite unhappy when people in horrible pain walk away from his church because they cannot get help. I hope this study serves as a wake-up call.

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