Discipling the Mentally Ill

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How do we encourage a mentally ill person to follow Jesus? Such persons may experience strange (to us) thoughts, express their feelings unpredictably, and/or severely test their personal relationships, including those with us. If we’re in a Bible study with such a person, how do we make them feel welcome, help keep them on track with the discussion, and enable them to grow spiritually?

Take, for example, Carl Johnson. He had a dream that expressed how he felt about himself.

Our whole family was at the beach. I reached down into the water and picked up a rock, a piece of petrified wood with strong-looking hieroglyphics. Immediately, I had this doubt: I was worthless, stupid, crummy, messed up. The whole family attacked me, total condemnation:

“You’re absolutely worthless. There’s nothing you can do about it.”

“See, I told you so,” my dad said. Right at the end, only mom was left. Everyone else had gone. “In about one-and-a half hours you’re going to hell,” she said. “Our whole family is going to hell.” I started screaming, screaming, screaming.

Carl’s screams woke him up. Although some details remain unclear, such as the meaning of the hieroglyphics, we understand the main point: Carl felt total condemnation from his family. He suffered with feelings of worthlessness and helplessness — that he was bad enough to lead his family to hell. He felt he was under God’s condemnation as well.

Perhaps at first we respond to Carl by suggesting that he follow Jesus. But several years prior to this, Carl did respond to the invitation at a Billy Graham Crusade. He underwent baptism, joined a local church, and now meets regularly with men for prayer. The truth is, though he’s a follower of Jesus, Carl has mental illness.


False condemnation

Carl was deeply suspicious of others’ motives. After church he challenged the pastor, “You preached about me this morning, didn’t you!” Although his pastor reassured him that he had not singled Carl out, the next week — in fact, every week — Carl issued the same challenge.

How does someone like Carl deal with his sense of doom and overcome his fear to follow Jesus? How does someone with whom we share “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Ephesians 4:4, 5) feel included in that fellowship in the Spirit?

Carl sought out a Christian counselor for help. Little did he or his counselor know that their relationship would last over ten years of bimonthly sessions. Each time Carl revealed his fear that God had condemned him, and he brought a scripture carefully selected to prove his point. To further convince his counselor, he shared the most negative, hostile interpretation of each passage.

“There. See!” he said as he read Matthew 12:31 about blasphemy against the Spirit. “I’ve committed the unpardonable sin, and God has condemned me.”

His counselor, an experienced pastor, patiently read the whole passage in context with him and gently suggested an alternate interpretation.

Slowly, Carl backed down from his rigid interpretation, from applying Scripture in the most hostile way against himself — until next session.

“There, see! I told you God condemned me,” he said, citing Hebrews 6:4-6 about crucifying again the Son of God. Or he cited 1 John 3:10: “anyone who does not practice righteousness is not of God . . . .”


Patient counselor

Month after month, year after year, Carl brought Bible passage after Bible passage to voice his greatest fears. A careful reading of the context and the counselor’s patience allowed Carl to express his doubts about himself, his fear, and even his hostility toward the counselor (e.g., when kept too long in the waiting room) without shame or hostility in return.

God’s providence of a counselor comfortable in dealing with Scripture interpretation helped bring healing to Carl. He could work out his distrust of others’ motives in the sessions. During treatment, Carl needed hospitalization only once, a major victory for his family, for society, and for him. Therapy helped avoid that family disruption, a high cost to taxpayers, and the shame of being locked up.

Important steps

The body of Christ can disciple the mentally ill. “But I’m not a counselor!” you say. “How can I do this?” While counseling provides specialized skill and time for slow, patient healing, Christians in local churches can take important steps to help.

Familiarize yourself with the signs of mental illness. Join your local mental health association, such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness, or NAMI (nami.org). Get to know people who suffer from this condition.

Befriend that mentally ill person. Spend time with them. Learn about their life, family, and how they cope with life.

In a December 15, 2015 Psychology Today.com blog, noted psychiatrist Allen Frances, MD, writes about the importance of friendship with the mentally ill. He quotes Virgil Stucker, who spent his adult life in therapeutic communities that encourage resocialization and recovery of people with severe mental illness:

I have lived most of the last 40 years in nonprofit healing communities with people who are diagnosed with mental illness. My family and I often walk with, dine with, socialize with, work with, and play with people who too often are treated as society’s castaways.

The takeaway? It’s stated at the beginning of Frances’ blog: “Neglect makes mental illness worse, inclusion makes it better.”

Share the Lord, as appropriate, with people who struggle with mental illness. You may find, as with Carl, you’ve befriended a believer. As a disciple of Jesus, you can buddy with them in your small group or Bible study. Help the mentally ill understand your group, and help your friends understand the mentally ill.


Body support

Several years after discontinuing therapy, Carl e-mailed his therapist to ask if he was the same person he had seen for counseling. “I’m a 1,000 times better than when we were meeting,” he wrote. “I learned to put into practice things you taught me.”

We never know the impact our life has on someone else. But what matters as Christians is that we are all of one body. Whether well or ill, we all need to follow Jesus more closely. As one body, we all need others to help us.

Gordon Grose
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Gordon Grose, Ph. D. is the author of Tragedy Transformed: How Job’s Recovery Can Provide Hope For Yours(BelieversPress, 2015). His article “Spirit-Filled Marriage” appeared in the May-June 2012 issue of the BA. Dr. Grose lives in West Linn, OR.