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Church and Families With Specially Challenged Kids #6 (Mental Illnesses)

2012 April 6
by Mike

How does the church stand with families who have a child suffering from mental illness?

used by permission

That strikes me as an issue that can get right to the core of living on behalf of one another. How do we encourage, welcome, serve, and bear the burdens of these families?

I’ve asked Carmel, a long-time, dear friend of ours, to write about her journey with her son. Please feel free to continue offering suggestions in the comments section about how the church can help.

– – – –

Mourning Mental Illness: Grief that gives way to God’s Grace.
by Carmel Christine

A turn of events can catapult your life as you know it into a sphere so foreign, so cold, dark, distant and frightening that you barely recognize it. My teen son was diagnosed with Bipolar two and a half years ago. This disorder didn’t arrive subtly so we could slowly get our bearings and adjust to it. It showed itself as depression first. Our effervescent son of younger years was changing, becoming more moody, but as a teenager moodiness comes with the territory. Within a very short time, he almost took his life and only by the grace of God the attempt was interrupted. It was then life as we knew it changed.

At the moment his doctor told us we needed to get immediate help for our son, I felt as though my heart was being pulled out of my chest by hand. My head on the other hand was trying to take in the doctor’s words—very slowly: “. . . nurse is looking up numbers . . . treatment centers . . .” while also trying to process a mom’s to-do list: “pack suitcase . . . but what about his food allergies? . . . how far away will he be? . . .” Grief is setting in but there’s no time for it. I’m cold all over. I have to move. I have to make calls. Not just one call—many, because I discovered not all places were able to take a kid with life-threatening food allergies. The risk? He’s suicidal which means no sharp things, ties and strings off shoes, etc., but they can’t keep him from drinking a glass of milk. That’s all it would take since he’s anaphylactic to it.

The darkness gets darker and has pushed me toward an abyss, a chasm. I was led to pray in order to get to the other side of this. My inner prayer to God then was two simple words: “Father, God.” All I could do was repeat it over and over. God moved me to take this thing moment by moment. I made the calls, one at a time until finally the right doctor and the right help came. Now I could breathe. Not deeply, but enough to feel. I felt grief. This feeling was the same as what I felt for the passing of my parents the year earlier. I’m not comfortable with it, but then who is. My optimistic outlook, past losses and how God had used them for His glory, to show mercy and grace, spirit and life at the darkest of times, kept me focused this time.

As time went on and medical treatment began, each stage was met with another loss. Each new medicine tried was always a risk. Then there was school. You see, there was always hope he would go back to school but that didn’t work out. When I would walk into the building to pick up his books I see all the usual activity of a typical high school—banners on the walls announcing a school dance SizeGenetics, the window case with the trophies of sports wins, students, his friends, laughing and going to class. Walking through the school one day, I happened to look across the top of one wall where an academic banner stretched across with names of proficient and distinguished students from the previous spring. My eyes scrolled down the list and there was my son’s name. My eyes welled up instantly—mostly with pride but then an uncomfortable, overwhelming sadness—not because I didn’t think he could be there again, but that it wouldn’t be the same. With his bipolar (not everyone with bipolar experiences it the same) he needs more time to study, to read, to take breaks—basically he has to move “with” his disorder to take advantage of his more productive moments, which are unpredictable, so when the “lows” hit, he won’t be too behind. With that kind of pace, the way he goes about his education has to be different; a new normal.

Going to dances or even events like July 4th celebrations present more difficulties because of the sounds and lights. They affect him and without going into it, it’s just another reminder that his activities have to be planned out and can’t be spontaneous. My point is there is a loss experienced.

The difference between a mourning of death and this kind of mourning is it is excruciatingly private. Unlike mourning the loss of a loved one, there are no neighborly visits from family or friends. No covered casseroles lined up on the kitchen counter; no notes or cards of encouragement or any of the markings of cherished care that comes when death interrupts life. No service with a preacher offering words of love and comfort, or ending in prayers for God’s grace. Still when mental illness forged its way into my 15-year-old son, it did so cruelly, ripping into the effervescent personality of our fun-loving teenager.

Where was the church in all this? Well, the year earlier when my mom died, I visited a small church in my town. After services, I approached the pastor, told him that I was visiting and my mom had recently passed away. He stood there and said he was sorry but he needed to go catch someone before they left. I said, sure go ahead. I left too. It would be another year before we would find a church but that was ok. We still had God.

The beginning of our new path together as a family is still developing. We have learned to reach out to a few people and have found a church family which means everything. The amazing courage my son has shown throughout this has overwhelmed me and taught me so much. Some things just don’t matter anymore. It doesn’t much matter if the house isn’t picked up when he has invited a friend over. We have learned who our friends are and who not to invest time with. I personally have reached a new place in my faith. There isn’t a lot of time for wasting—time involved in the things this world thinks is important. My focus is on God’s Kingdom. My son is mine to care for here but belongs to God.

Our son is very open with his condition. Still, many people find it hard to realize all that he copes with because unlike other disabilities, with mood disorders or mental illness, you can’t “see” it. But one fine thing you can see is his fun-loving spirit is back, he found God and loves Jesus! Praises always to our One & Only.

23 Responses leave one →
  1. Waymon Hinson permalink
    April 6, 2012

    Thank you for this incredible story and post.

  2. David permalink
    April 6, 2012

    As I read this beautifully written post, I was once again reminded of “being strong in the broken places.” For Carmel’s son to be open about his situation provides opportunities for ministry. His openness makes it more likely that others will share their stories.

    What can the church do? In many churches there are school counselors, special educators, and school psychologists who can provide guidance for creating “pass on the comfort” ministries to families and individuals with special needs. Of course, most importantly the church should have an “atmosphere of acceptance” created by inviting the Holy Spirit into the life of the church.

  3. April 6, 2012

    So what can the church do?

    Carmel has helped us with what’s essential: honesty! Let’s admit that believing in Jesus is not some elixir that removes all of life’s illnesses (including mental illnesses). Let’s admit that we have members battling depression, Bipolar, etc. Let’s admit that prayer, counseling, laying on of hands, olive oil, etc., may not take those burdens away (as important as they are!).

    Once we are honest, we can begin without guilting and shaming and with the compassion of Jesus to walk alongside people who suffer.

  4. freda permalink
    April 6, 2012

    When your child is hit with the emergence of mental illness in the last year of college the trauma can be overwhelming. If your child is at a “church” school and is not dealt with in a compassionate manner, it can be devastating. If your child’s church has no idea your active child has missed the last three months of services, well, that is a different story. We do not do enough, and I include myself in that statement. Even after our experiences, sometimes taking that step into the world of risk is beyond our current capabilities. We need to teach compassion as well as acceptance.

  5. David permalink
    April 6, 2012

    Mike, you are right! Depression has been my shadow most of my life. I imagine many others, especially those of us who experienced traumatic childhoods, are all too familiar with the depletion of their serotonin levels and need medication to keep from going into the dark tunnel. However, to let a small group or class at a church know this, I might as well say that I was addicted to porn.

  6. David permalink
    April 6, 2012

    In other words, if you want to create space between you and others in the church, tell them you battle depression.

  7. Janet Hartford permalink
    April 6, 2012

    Carmel, Thank you dear sister for sharing your story and your son’s story. I work in the mental health field and am acutely aware as to how mental illness affects our patients and how often it tears families apart because the lack of support. The pain is real. The heartache is overwhelming. We all know myths and misconception surround mental illness Sometimes families will isolate themselves from others but telling your story is “freedom” Freedom of shame, freedom of guilt and freedom to shout to the world/church/doctors/freinds… “My family needs help and support. We need guidance, acceptance, understanding and and agape love” Carmel, my husband died tragically while with him after coming in on Lake Erie from a fishing trip. (yes, I loveeeeeeeee to fish), I was left with two children, guilt that I couldn’t save the love of my life and wondered how I could live without him. In my own pain, I began taking classes in psychology/family life. I didn’t know what I wanted to do other than I knew it had to be something to help others who struggled with depression and other mental disorders. I read this to the class I taking soon after my husband Ray died.
    “My personal mission is to be before and above everything else a follower of Jesus. I want to be thankful of all things, focusing on sacrificiing selfish desires. During the hard, painful parts of my life, I want to make choices that will me sweeter, wiser and more understanding and compassionate, rather than bitter and closed in by anger. Lastly, my personal mission is to be a light of hope for my children and others as to how God has used my own borkenness to bring healing to others.”
    I just accepted a new position as Volunteer Coordinator at the hospital. I believe we lack giving those who suffer with mental illness the attention, and compassion they deserve. As I write this, I pray God will use me to fill their lives with joy and hope. I pray volunteers will come in droves to help advocate for change and that spiritual leaders will reach out and share the gospel of Jesus Christ. Clearly, this is a priority mission since we know mental illness statistically strikes one in five families at some time in their life.
    Again, thank you so much for sharing your walk with me and others. May God show favor to you and your beauiful son. If I can assist you in any way, please let me know.

  8. April 6, 2012

    Thank YOU, Janet for your words of love, care and the courageous steps you took after the passing of your husband, to help people. There are some remarkable people I have discovered in this field and thankful for each one. These twists and turns in life can bring about amazing renewed focus on what it is we are doing here. Makes it clearer, somehow. Blessed to meet you and others here and thankful for Mike bringing this special message to the forefront of church life. There’s always hope.

  9. April 6, 2012

    Beautiful story. I appreciate the courageous faith lived in the midst so much challenge and difficulty.

  10. BeeBee permalink
    April 8, 2012

    I am an adult whose thirtysomething sibling deals with schizophrenia. My comments will be in the context of this severe mental illness, and may not necessarily apply to people with other mental illnesses.

    My sibling’s mental illness seemed to develop over the period of about a year. Typically, there are warning signs that a family may not notice, or may not connect the dots, or may attribute to hormones or teenage moodinesss (as Carmel stated above). Or maybe you observe the person drastically changing his/her lifestyle, religious and political views. Maybe the person is acting like they are on drugs.

    In our case, after months of odd behavior, there was a crisis in which my sibling needed immediate help. In other cases a loved one attempts suicide. Maybe the loved one acts extremely abnormally in public, or commits a crime (usually trespassing or disturbing the peace), and the police are called. Or maybe the parent just finally accepts their child is ill and needs professional help.

    Mike asked “what can the church do?”

    At the first crisis, the parent may call the church office, because “that’s what you do” when you need help. But your preacher or in-house counselor or elder may have no experience with mentally ill people. The church office needs to have the number of a suicide hotline. Encourage the parent to call 911 if they need to — and tell them to tell 911 that the person may be experiencing a psychotic episode, and the police/medics can help assess the situation.

    If the parent and/or child wants to talk to a preacher/elder, do it — even if you don’t understand mental illness. You cannot immediately fix the situation, but you can listen. So just make sure the family knows that someone at church cares. You might ask the ill person and/or parent about what they want to pray for. Do they want you to cast out demons in the name of Jesus? Pray for peace? Pray for healing? I’m sure everyone is different.

    After the initial crisis, the church could refer families to NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illnesses) (http://www.nami.org/) for support groups and information. And wouldn’t it be wonderful if a NAMI support group met at your church building?? Also, it would be helpful if the church office could have on-hand a list of its members who are psychiatrists, social workers etc. to give to the family in crisis. These professionals may not specifically treat their child, but connecting with Christians who deal with mental illness will be helpful to a family. Also, other members whose families include someone who’s mentally ill may be willing to help guide other members through the initial shock and aftermath.

    Not many people talk about mental illness, especially not at church. But as I’ve shared my family’s story, people have shared with me, and I’ve been surprised that almost everyone has encountered mental illness in their families. You really are not alone.

    Now, two links:

    This is a very, very good article regarding “first aid” for schizophrenia — What to do if you suspect someone is developing it:
    http://www.schizophrenia.com/sznews/archives/005561.html

    This is a terrific overview with statistics.
    http://www.nami.org/Content/NavigationMenu/Inform_Yourself/About_Mental_Illness/About_Mental_Illness.htm

    This comment is getting too long, so if I can, I’ll write more later on how to be a friend to the person with mental illness and to his/her parents and family. I am willing to answer others’ questions also.

    And to both Carmel and Janet and your families … GOD BLESS YOU! And thanks to Mike for including mental illness in this series.

  11. Pam Sigler permalink
    April 10, 2012

    One of my daughters experienced sever depression during the high school years and beyond high school….What I discovered was not what I expected…Sad to say, when I asked for help from Church elders, minister, and youth minister, what I got was accusations and finger pointing on how I should hve been a better mom,wife and church member…God was faithful thru these years of ups and downs, tears and laughter. I learned so much, and grew closer to God than I could ever imagine. What I also learned was how fearful fellow christians were/are when it comes to mental health and christianity. Mental Illness isn’t contagious, your teen can’t catch it from mine. While I wouldn’t want my experience to happen to any family especially the teen, it also has given me the chance to give options to others. Finding therapy from someone who not only shared my beliefs in God, but more importantly someone she trusted was difficult. The 5th therapist clicked with her immediately…God was faithful, God is still faithful….To parents who face these types of struggles…keep going, remember to breath, God will be faithful, the other side of your nightmare is there, even when you can’t see it.

  12. Jeanne permalink
    April 10, 2012

    We have had the same similar and all too familiar story. Our daughter is a very sweet, loving, kind, giving person when she is feeling well. Our daughter was 17 years old when she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. We felt all alone at our well meaning church. It’s been a roller coaster ride, to say the least. We do have a few people in our church family that are very supportive and this helps us a lot when we feel like we can’t pray anymore. Our daughter can’t hold on to friendships which breaks our hearts due to ups and downs. People with bipolar disorder have a disease of the brain, just like diabetes, etc. Our daughter also has juvenile diabetes so the combination of these two diseases is very difficult, to say the least. She is in and out of the hospital due to her bipolar brain not wanting to take care of her physical body. What helps us the most is when we can call one of our friends at church to have them pray for us and when we can talk with someone who will not assume you have a daughter who is a brat and you should do something about it. Believe me, we’ve done it all! Thanks for writing about this. It helps to know there are other people out there in church families who have these kinds of struggles. The NAMI (National Association of the Mentally Ill Family to Family Program) really helped us. This group also has a faith based group of people on their website that talk about their struggles. We know that God has a plan in all of this, but it’s still very difficult and is easy to become weary.

  13. Lauren permalink
    April 11, 2012

    Hi Mike, Carmel and others,
    Thank you so much for your series on inclusion of people with disabilities in church and faith communities. This is something I’m extremely passionate about, so I always get excited when I find people who are bringing attention to it in the public arena.
    Here in Australia, CBM (www.cbm.org.au) have a fantastic advocacy initiative called Luke14. I wonder if there is something similar in the states? Luke14 has a resource kit for churches with DVD’s, bible studies, and ideas about running a Disability Awareness Sunday at your church. The team also run half-day workshops focusing on different aspects of disability, like mental illness, disability 101, and including people with intellectual disabilities. For more info go to http://www.luke14.cbm.org.au.
    Thanks,
    Lauren

  14. April 11, 2012

    Pam / Jeanne / Lauren, thank you for sharing your experiences, not to dissimilar to mine. Funny, how you go through the briar of life sometimes thinking you’re alone, and how surprising it is when someone comes along who understands, has been there or at least cares enough to say he’ll/she’ll listen. In any of life’s pains, we don’t (necessarily) need fancy words and especially don’t need damaging doctrine… just love, an ear to listen, oh and maybe an offer to help with the laundry after a day of running to doctors, therapy and school.

    Pam, I love your comment that “mental illness isn’t contagious!” : ) These experiences – parenting a child with mental challenges – do bring new perspectives. I love that it brings you closer to God. It can also have the potential to help bring us closer to others too: like more patience, more courage to listen, more faith in the human spirit when God brings you or your child someone so desperately needed like a friend, therapist, or teacher at just the right time!

    Since this began two yrs ago I prayed for God to heal him mind, body and soul. And you know what? He IS faithful. God led me to ask very specific people to pray this with me. He’s not “cured” but I can say two yrs later, he is alive, healthy – with bipolar – and loves God. : ) His soul lights up my life! Kinda worth it all, especially with a God that loves us more than we will know.

    ~ blessings!

  15. Jeanne permalink
    April 12, 2012

    Carmel, Pam, Freda and Lauren:
    Thanks for sharing your stories. There are so many good things that have happened because of the challenges that our precious children face. I’ve learned to be thankful each day for every day we have with her, little annoying things just don’t matter, God gives us strength with each new day, we have wonderful caring Christian friends who really do care and can lift us up in prayer, doctors who care…I could go on and on. I am also thankful for people like you who share their stories. Thanks again!

  16. April 12, 2012

    Some final thoughts on what the church can do:

    • Connect!
    Kids with special needs already have been, to some degree, kept apart from the majority of their peers, put in separate classes, etc. Here’s an opportunity for us at church to accept kids with mental challenges. Invite them to activities, provide teen-to-teen mentoring, texting to stay in touch, offer to pick them up and take to youth group can make meaningful connections, keeps them from isolation and builds their faith in the process!
    • Interact with their parents. The parents can help you in understanding their child in a positive meaningful way.
    • Children and teens with mental challenges are fighting a daily, unseen battle. Including kids in activities or finding calmer places to spend time during Wednesday small group time can make all the difference in a teen feeling accepted and keeps them connected.

  17. freda permalink
    April 13, 2012

    Thanks, Jeanne. Your comments felt like a prayer. We forget how a single kind word or acknowledgement of someone’s struggle can make a difference. You made a difference today.

  18. May 11, 2012

    We are proud of you and your son, Carmel Christine. You are a strong woman.

  19. May 12, 2012

    Linda, your words mean so much ~ especially today. Love how God works. ~ blessings.

    Be well,

    Mel

  20. Maria Holmes. I also have a daughter that is mentally disable. I also lost my son one year ago... Where is the church in all of this? permalink
    May 30, 2012

    Hi, My name is Maria Holmes I am from Colombia South America . I am marry to Thomas Holmes. We have three children Angela Maria ,who is Mentally disable. Anna Erika who is marry and have four children. My son Andrew Thomas Valention . die one one ago. He was 22 years old I do feel like my life has been destroy to many times . And where is the church in all of this? I do wonder and pray for it. We belong to McKnight Church of Christ.

    In Christ,

    Maria Holmes
    314-843-0270

  21. Maria Holmes. I also have a daughter that is mentally disable. I also lost my son one year ago... Where is the church in all of this? permalink
    May 30, 2012

    Hi , I am sending you my e-mail spanighgirlo7@aol.com Maria Holmes 314-843-0270

  22. Maria Holmes. I also have a daughter that is mentally disable. I also lost my son one year ago... Where is the church in all of this? permalink
    May 30, 2012

    Hi, I am so sorry I think that I made a mistake with my e-mail address. spanishgirl07@aol.com

    Thank you,

    Maria Holmes

  23. June 1, 2012

    Maria, I am so sorry for the loss of your son, Andrew Thomas. My heart aches for you, Andrew’s mom, and the caring mother you must be to your other children and grandchildren. There is real suffering in all you write about and I’m sure even more in what you didn’t write but deal with every day. I pray God’s grace in all its forms on you, Maria. He loves you and won’t let you go. Thanks for your email. I’ll write you. ~ Carmel

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