"Bear one another's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ." (Galatians 6:2)
In 2011, the ELCA Church Council adopted a social message on Mental Illness. The purpose is clear: "This social message hopes to proclaim the gospel's powerful news and offer up the body of Christ as a sign of healing and hope. It also intended to raise awareness in the church that mental illness, which is so often hidden away, is present in congregations and communities, and is a major public health issue. Additionally, it hopes to illuminate some of the effects that mental illness has, both on individuals, and on familial and social networks."
"The mental and emotional pain of mental illness could be one of the most far-reaching issues the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America encounters. In their lifetimes, one-half of Americans will have a serious mental health condition, but fewer than half of them will receive treatment."
"A mental illness can defined as a health condition that changes a person's thinking, feelings, or behavior (or all three) and that causes the person distress and difficulty in functioning."
The church is in the business of healing, and of advocating for those in need. Jesus cured people who were possessed by evil spirits. We refer them to trained professionals. And, at our best, we welcome them into our community life. They are us.
Who is susceptible to mental illness? Anyone is. Yet despite years of efforts of public education to demystify mental illness, there is still a stigma in many places, and shame. Consequently, many suffering from mental illness find their experience exacerbated by loneliness and isolation.
Over the years, society has taken different approaches to mental illness-exorcism, banishment, punishment, mass institutionalization, therapy, drugs. In recent times, there has been a move to de-institutionalize many people who had been institutionalized under the previous protocol. That trend, combined with diminished community resources and increased need, has resulted in a near crisis in community mental health.
Increasing numbers of veterans with PTSD, people living in poverty, drug and alcohol addictions add to the crisis. The church's message states clearly: "The cost of not treating mental illness is enormous, and comes in many forms. The cost comes in terms of destroyed relationships and overwhelming stress, social humiliation, human dignity and, in fact, human lives."
Some of the barriers to treatment include: stigma, coverage, access, and funding. Rural areas, in particular, lack resources for treatment of mental illness. "More than three quarters of the counties in the U.S. experience severe shortages of mental health providers, and the more rural the county, the more likely this is the case."
"The church can be a powerful and welcoming place for people who are in recovery and experience healing, as they return to tell their stories of hope. The church can be a locus for proclaiming the good news of healing of body and relationships, not just to people living with mental illness, fur from people living with mental illness."
"By answering its call to enter into the companionship of suffering, the church eases the isolation and alienation experienced by those who suffer from the effects of mental illness."
The church can educate on mental illness-that it is not the result of sin and the sufferer is not to blame, nor is his or her family. The church can help de-stigmatize mental illness, and welcome people with mental illness and their families into the church. The church can accompany those who suffer. The church can advocate for funding of mental health from governments.
"The ELCA, by virtue of its teaching about healing in its health care statement, offers an understanding of mental illness that is both hopeful and realistic. Treating mental illness requires care and attention, a sense of hopefulness, and a realistic sense of what is possible."
May is Mental Health Awareness month. It might just be a time to look at this statement, and maybe bring in a mental health professional for some education in the congregation.
Jessica Crist, Bishop
This is the sixth in a series of reflections on the Social Messages adopted by the ELCA Church Council over our history. The messages can be found at www.elec.org/socialmessages, and these reflections will be archived at www.montanasynod.org.
Bishop Jessica Crist
Bishop of the Montana Synod of the ELCA