I guess the second best place to be when you are sick would be the hospital because as it seems the heart of God has always been with those that are suffering. I myself have spent quite a bit of time in both churches and hospitals in my lifetime. As a former preacher’s kid (PK) and born again late-in-life baby Christian, I have seen both the highlights and dark underbelly of the church community in terms of caring and loving on its own. In my adult life I have worked in a few psychiatric hospitals as a mental health and addictions counselor. In addition, I happen to also suffer from a chronic illness.
In our world today mental illnesses are very common. One in five people suffer from a mental illness in the United States. One in 24 people suffer from a serious mental illness, and one in 12 are suffering from at least one form of addiction (American Psychiatric Association). These people are in our pews every Sunday, sitting next to you, taking communion with you, and praying with you.
Symptoms of mental illnesses can often handicap an individual’s ability to communicate their feelings or how they are suffering. Stigma often silences those who are dealing with a mental illnesses to suffer alone, isolated from the love and support of their church communities. The church often doesn’t feel like the safe haven our sanctuaries were built for to someone that is hurting.
The messages that are most often tossed out from from the pulpit and even in the quiet corners of Sunday School rooms and offices of our pastoral staff is to “just pray it away,” or suggesting that an issue with mental health is a reflection of a “fracture in one’s faith.” It is quickly overlooked that our God is a Lord of healing, as Paul wrote to the Romans about the Holy Spirit that “helps our infirmaries.” (Romans 8:26) Here the Holy Spirit literally becomes our partner and helper with our mental and physical problems, He is working alongside us in cooperation for our healing and for our good.
For me, my job is my ministry. It is my honor to be a servant of the Lord in the darkest and most often distressing times of my patients. Many times they feel abandoned by God, because of the battles in their heads and the messages that Satan has told them over and over and over. It doesn’t feel fair or right that a God who designed the Heavens and Earth and knit each person uniquely in their mother’s womb would give them this burden to carry.
They may feel abandoned by their faith communities and friends because depression and addiction can often feel like an unreachable depth. They may feel too ashamed to say, “hey, I’m not okay today.” They may have been running from Him only to collapse helplessly in His arms on the floor of a hospital room or dark unfamiliar place. He will always meet us where we are at.
Being a light to the darkest of days, a messenger of hope and sister in Christ, and helping to heal mental health is the drive and passion that gets me through the day. It is my hope though, that one day the church can work me out of a job. I do pray that one day the stigma of mental illness, of any illness, will no longer hinder those who need help, who need Him.