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  • July 11, 2014 - Reflections

    By Jean S. Horner
    The other day while walking down a corridor in a public building, I saw what appeared to be someone walking toward me. On coming closer, I found it was my own reflection in a huge mirror. For a moment it frightened me. Somehow a full-length reflection of one’s self is a startling thing. ...

Connections: Amy Simpson
Oct. 13, 2013

Troubled Minds

Amy Simpson knows the subject matter of her book Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission firsthand. Simpson’s father gave up pastoring after her mother could no longer function because of schizophrenia. Simpson, 40, recently spoke with Pentecostal Evangel News Editor John W. Kennedy about the role of the church beyond prayer for the suffering.

evangel: It seems as though many once-taboo topics are now being discussed in churches. Is mental illness the last holdout?

Amy Simpson: Mental illness is one of the few topics that are unnatural for us to talk about in church. People are so accustomed to keeping this a secret because they don’t feel it’s safe to talk about. People really do feel alone.

evangel: You say mental illness is more pervasive than people realize.

Simpson: I was shocked myself when I discovered just how common it is. In the United States, 26.2 percent of the adult population suffers from a diagnosable mental illness. The figure for those 18 and under is about 20 percent. Mental illness tends to attack in the prime of life, with 75 percent affected by age 24.

evangel: What can the church offer to help that the world doesn’t?

Simpson: We can offer a kind of hope that the world doesn’t offer. That hope is for now because there is a meaning and purpose and redemption for suffering that Christ provides that no one else can. Sometimes we can’t see anything good that comes out of a person’s suffering. But we can trust Christ and believe when we suffer He brings about good, not only through us but in us.

We also have hope for the ultimate future when we won’t suffer, when our bodies will be made new and we won’t have to live with the effects of sin as we do now. That includes a re-creation of our brains.

Another thing the church can offer that the world can’t is a strong, loving, supportive community that builds boundaries around people. Those who are affected by mental illness almost always need a connection to other people. If the church can be that point of connection, we can offer so much.

evangel: What practical steps can individuals take to help the mentally ill around them?

Simpson: We can start by looking at ourselves — acknowledging our own brokenness as individuals. Those who have never struggled with depression are just as broken as those who do struggle, whether it’s pride or issues of addiction or a need for approval from others or an overreliance on themselves.

At the heart of the gospel is admitting and understanding that we all are in need of grace, and we all experience consequences of human sin. Many people have a false idea that the natural state of Christians in this life is that God somehow owes us happiness, health and comfort. Jesus said in this world we will have trouble. Paul said our suffering is something God uses for good. Peter tells us to expect suffering and trouble — and to thank God for it.

Beyond that, we need to extend basic dignity and friendship to people who are affected by mental illness, especially those whose symptoms are harder to hide. I’ve been told by people with mental illness, “Sometimes when I tell others, they stop talking to me,” or “They stop making eye contact with me,” or “No one shakes my hand,” or “No one asks me how I’m doing anymore.”

We often say, mistakenly, “I don’t know how to help.” But we don’t think that way about other illnesses. When someone says, “I’ve been diagnosed with cancer,” we don’t say, “Why are you telling me? I can’t cure you.” No, we realize they need support, friendship and practical help. Mental illness is often called the “no casserole” illness. We need to rethink our level of intimidation and fear.

evangel: You suggest church leaders talking more openly about the issue would spur church members to seek help.

Simpson: I’ve had people say, “I had an anxiety disorder” or “I suffered from depression and I told those in my church. … They told me to just spend more time in prayer and discouraged me from taking medication.” These people felt they had to choose between church and treatment.

Mental illness is not outside the realm of Christian experience. It’s OK to receive treatment at the same time you are receiving spiritual nourishment at church.

evangel: You point out in your book that mental illness isn’t always solvable by taking drugs. There can be side effects.

Simpson: The average length of a psychiatric hospital stay is shorter than the average length of what it takes for psychiatric medications to begin working. When patients are released, doctors don’t even know if that medication is going to be effective.

Even when doctors find the right medication, there are powerful side effects that can create problems almost as debilitating as the symptoms of the illness itself. For some people, the agony of living with the side effects is so great they stop taking the medications.

The mental health system can be very difficult to navigate in getting proper treatment. Medications, psychologists and hospitals do not provide what the church is called to provide: spiritual nurturing, a loving community, and the hope of Christ.

evangel: Mental illness can be a long-term and perhaps even a lifetime condition. 

Simpson: That’s very important to understand. We lose patience with people when they fail to get better on our timetable, or when they seem to be dealing with the same problem over and over. Some people do get treatment and get better. But some of the more serious and chronic forms of mental illness, at least at this point, can be lifelong medical challenges. It’s like living with diabetes. We don’t speak in terms of a cure, but rather as an illness that must be managed.

In dealing with those with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and some forms of depression, those around them need to extend patience and grace when they don’t seem to get better, or when they go through repeated cycles of the same problem.

evangel: With your own mother you have experienced signs of hope.

Simpson: Even before I was born, my mom suffered from symptoms of mental illness. As I grew up, the family didn’t understand what was happening with her. We just thought she had trouble making decisions and forming friendships. She functioned well enough until we moved into a city from a rural area.

When I was 14, my mom suffered her first full psychotic episode when she lost touch with reality. Throughout my teen and adult life, she has suffered tremendously from the effects of schizophrenia. She has been on various medications. She has lived in homeless shelters. She has spent time in prison.

This experience with my mom has been the biggest test of my Christian faith. It also has been one of the greatest opportunities for my faith to grow. I can look back and see that God provided hope, faith and love all along the way.

My mom is now functioning well and taking care of herself. She is able to engage in relationships in a way she hasn’t for a really long time. Even though the journey isn’t over, our family knows that God will walk with us along the way.


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