When people have mental illness they often turn to their church for help. But instead of getting help, a new study by Baylor University psychologists has found churches are more likely to overlook the need.
A 1998 Deseret News story by Marjorie Cortez told a similar story. Rev. Steven Waterhouse, pastor of Westcliff Bible Church in Amarillo, Texas, sought help for his brother who had schizophrenia. Instead of support there was avoidance. "A lot of clergy don't know how to help," Waterhouse said. "If they knew how to help, they'd help."
Baylor's new study surveyed nearly 6,000 people in 24 churches representing four Protestant denominations. The results showed mental illness in 27 percent of families. Those families had twice the number of stress-inducing problems — financial troubles, balancing family and work, etc. — as other families. The study analyzed desires for assistance and found that getting help with mental illness was a priority for those families affected by it, but it was virtually ignored by everybody else in the churches.
Study co-author Dr. Matthew Stanford, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Baylor, said, "The data give the impression that mental illness, while prevalent within a congregation, is also nearly invisible."
Psychologist Rick Hawks spoke at BYU's Education Week in 2005 about how some religious people "shoot their wounded" by not responding properly to people with mental illness. He spoke about several myths about mental illness:
If you keep the commandments, you won't have mental illness
All emotional difficulties have to do with personal sin
Prayers and blessings are all that needs to be done to restore mental functioning
Seeking professional help is a sign of weakness
The mentally ill simply lack willpower
Elder Alexander B. Morrison, an emeritus member of the Quorums of the Seventy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, pointed out other myths about mental illness in his book "Valley of Sorrow":
All mental illness is caused by sin
Someone is to blame for mental illness
Mental illness doesn't strike children and young people
Whatever the cause, mental illness is untreatable
Elder Morrison spoke in 2004 at a conference at BYU on the topic and said, "You shouldn't try to make (church leaders) into mental-heath professionals, but what you can do is help them to know what the symptoms are and know enough to differentiate between those suffering from sin and those suffering from disease."
Dr. Diana Garland, dean of Baylor's School of Social Work and a co-author of the new Baylor study, said, "Families with mental illness stand to benefit from their involvement within a congregation, but our findings suggest that faith communities fail to adequately engage these families because they lack awareness of the issues and understanding of the important ways that they can help. … Partnerships between mental health providers and congregations may help to raise awareness in the church community and simultaneously offer assistance to struggling families."
An article in Christian Today looked at the problem of mental illness in Great Britain. Dr. Rob Waller is a psychiatrist who started "Mind and Soul," which began as a network of Christian mental health support groups. "Some people have been told that they ought to pray more, to snap out of it or that they just need more faith," he told Christian Today. "But what they actually need is a healing and accepting community. I was shocked how little the church talked about these problems. The church needs to foster a culture that means that this topic can be discussed if it needs to be. They need to be clear that they are mental-health friendly."
Waller said many mental illnesses are not obvious, such as anxiety, self-harm, depression and obsessive-compulsive disorders. Isolation — and as the new Baylor studied pointed out, being ignored — are a big part of the problem. He also recommends taking care of mental health the same way someone might take care of physical health by going to the gym. "To maintain our mental health we need to monitor our work and life balance. Setting aside time to worship and reflect is vital."