This fall our congregation is hosting a series on mental health. Although it is seldom remarked, the wide set of issues we might categorize under mental health profoundly impact congregational life. It is in fact impossible to over-state the impact--mental health issues intersect with worship attendance patterns, ebb and flow of volunteerism, family life, spiritual vitality, and more.
When we sat down and attempted to enumerate the topics we hoped to cover, we realized the complexity not only of the individual subjects to study, but also the complexity of their inter-relating. We have a habit of categorizing mental health issues, giving them labels--bipolar, borderline, dementia, anxiety, addiction--in order to fit them into manageable categories.
This is not an altogether bad habit. Sometimes it is helpful to be able to name or diagnose something. It becomes more manageable or treatable.
On the other hand, inventorizing mental health issues can have the effect of stigmatizing particular conditions. It also focuses mental health on the individual, as if mental health were solely about the mind of a particular individual.
Looked at in wider perspective, we know this isn't true. Mental health is not an isolated, individualistic item. It's situated within family systems. It's developmentally and situationally fluid. It exists along a spectrum, and one specific mental health diagnosis often overlaps with others.
So as we have planned the course, sometimes we anticipate learning about a specific mental health diagnosis. In other instances, we plan to bring in experts who can talk about our relationship to mental health in our family life and in our own lives.
A big part of mental health is knowing how to respond to mental health issues when they come up in our lives, or in the lives of others. What should we do? How should we respond?
It is our hope to also host a "mental health in my life" panel. Although I spend a good amount of time talking to parishioners about mental health and the way it impacts their ability to participate in the church, I've rarely been part of a conversation where people shared openly how their mental health impacted their ability to worship or attend church.
Similarly, although we know to cook casseroles for somebody who has lost a loved one, or throw a shower for a new baby, we don't alway know what to do when we learn someone is struggling with depression or anxiety. So a big part of the church and mental health is learning best practices for our collective and individual response.
Finally, although we are constantly unmasking stigmas that need exposing, the stigma of mental health is especially intractable. Everyone knows to go to the hospital if they break their leg. Not everyone knows how to talk openly and without judgment about mental health issues.
Part of this has to do with the close proximity between mental health and selfhood. How we are emotionally, how our brains function, often feels more impactful on our identity than say, our left femur. Put a cast on your broken leg, you're still you. Start taking prescriptions for bipolar, and you have some questions about who the new you is in light of your medication and persona.
This is where theology comes into play. There is something about the shalom of God's coming kingdom that should have salvific, hope-filled good news not just for those who are hungry, or physically sick, but also those who are finding ways to live with a mental health diagnosis.
The church can and should do better at being precisely the place where mental health is nurtured, and when mental health is a struggle, a safe place in which to navigate such struggle.
One last thing: sometimes the church cultivates a sense of grace that lacks boundaries. Unfortunately, this doesn't work very well with some mental health challenges. I'm thinking here of borderline personality disorder in particular. So part of the work of the church, if it is to host a rich theological formation around freedom in Christ and a true understanding of grace, is to learn habits that set the church free to stop walking on egg shells and keep appropriate boundaries precisely for the sake of the gospel, not as anti-thesis to it.
As I've been writing this post, I have been realizing all the ways I as a pastor need to think better, and more clearly, about mental health and faith. I have some doubts even about what I've written here. I feel a bit like a neophyte. So I invite readers into this conversation, and I especially invite your recommendations on best blogs and books and tools so we can all think together as wisely as possible about mental health in the church--for the good of the church and the health of our minds.