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Mental Health Matters

How the Church responds to those with troubled minds can be the key to recovery and healing.

One in four American adults experiences a diagnosable mental disorder every year, making mental disorders the leading cause of disability in this nation, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

That means there are multitudes struggling while attending church.

"Almost everybody in the pew has a broken heart for some reason or another," says Glen Ryswyk, a pioneering Assemblies of God U.S. Missions mental health chaplain. "We all have our wounds, flaws, hurts, and bruises and they do bother us. The pain can be quite intense."

"We live in a fallen and broken world that can leave believers wounded, disillusioned, and scarred," says Donald A. Lichi, a licensed psychologist and vice president at EMERGE Counseling Services in Akron, Ohio. "The church is in a unique position to minister healing."

"The Church is still the most influential voice in our communities," says Valerie Saviano, a licensed Assemblies of God minister who heads Restoration Ministries, a global prayer outreach in Rockford, Illinois. "People turn to the Church first when they are looking for help. If the Church doesn't know how to respond, these people are going to be hopeless."

The National Alliance on Mental Illness defines mental illnesses as "medical conditions that disrupt a person's thinking, feeling, mood, ability to relate to others, and daily functioning," that "often result in a diminished capacity for coping with the ordinary demands of life."

While mild depression and anxiety may be the most common forms, a minority of people with mental health issues are dealing with more acute problems that can lead to suicide. Ryswyk, 61, says those in the throes of chronic schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or borderline personality disorder need assistance from medical professionals rather than off-the-cuff advice from churchgoers.

But for those dealing with milder forms of depression or anxiety -- which usually are short-term -- Ryswyk suggests positive interaction.

"Rather than judging or criticizing, have compassion for them, put your arm around their shoulder, tell them you are praying for them, and that you believe in them," says Ryswyk, who is clinical director of Christian Family Counseling Center in Lawton, Oklahoma. "Encouragement can make a difference."

"When someone talks of thoughts of hopelessness or feeling worthless, the best thing we can do is take a moment, put down our cellphone, close our laptop, and let that person know we are listening, and they are not alone," Saviano says.

Lichi, 62, says there is no reason in church to belittle or ignore those who have such needs. He says although prayer is an important aspect of mental health recovery, it shouldn't be viewed as a panacea. God may choose divine healing, yet He also may heal through a medication process, Lichi says.

"One of the biggest myths is that salvation and being filled with the Holy Spirit should somehow make us immune to the painful events that occur in a fallen world," Lichi says. "God enables and strengthens us in our daily lives and gives meaning and purpose, even to our sufferings."

Lichi says many churchgoers initially approach a pastor in seeking help for such issues in life. The reaction of the pastor will determine whether the person is open with others about the condition, he says.

Saviano has a 22-year-old son who has been battling severe mental illness for seven years.

"God wants to use everything we go through in life for his glory," says Saviano, 47. "How we respond to it absolutely makes a difference."

Saviano says she and her husband John found little empathy among Christians regarding the situation because people didn't know how to react.

"Mental illness is the most widely misunderstood illness," Saviano says. "People are afraid of what they don't understand."

Saviano says Christians typically view mental illness as a spiritual problem, assuming iniquity in the person's life led to the difficulties.

"They don't recognize it's a real biological illness that causes brain chemicals to be off balance," Saviano says. "When experiencing feelings of despair, isolation, and helplessness, it's not bad to take medicine for your brain, which is the most complex organ in the body."

While a churchgoer suffering from cancer may be embraced in a crisis, Saviano believes someone in depression too frequently is ignored or judged, only exacerbating sensations of shame, hopelessness, and guilt.

Saviano says Jesus' healing of a blind man as recorded in John 9 has helped her to view mental illness through a different lens. The disciples asked the Savior whether the blind man or his parents had sinned. Jesus said neither; rather, the disability allowed for God's glory to be displayed.

"The disciples wrongly looked at it as a spiritual issue in which there was sin in the man's life," Saviano says. "But Jesus showed not every illness is a result of sin."

Ryswyk says those who are besieged often are their own worst critics because they have been conditioned not to accept unconditional grace.

"More than we realize, those of us in ministry often communicate a works righteousness," Ryswyk says. "We subtly communicate that we have to pray more, read more, fast more to measure up and make God happy."

Nevertheless, the Church is coming to grips with the reality of its role in the once-taboo topic. Ryswyk says in this century he has seen much progress accepting the mentally ill, but much more grace is needed. Pastors and lay leaders need to let others see their humanity, he says.

"When we try to be perfect, we really communicate that others must be perfect," Ryswyk says. "Stop trying to measure up; only God's grace is sufficient."

Lichi contends there is no better place than the household of God to gain healing from pain caused by dysfunctional relationships.

"The community of believers should provide a safe space for a person who is struggling with life's difficult issues," Lichi says. "In a community of grace and acceptance, one may find practical means to receive the help of the Holy Spirit."

Ryswyk says people can readily identify what's wrong with others, but frequently miss what is askew in their own lives.

"We all have mental health issues," Ryswyk says. "There's none righteous, no, not one."


John W. Kennedy

John W. Kennedy served as news editor of AG News from its inception in 2014 until retiring in 2023. He previously spent 15 years as news editor of the Pentecostal Evangel and seven years as news editor at Christianity Today.