A Pastor Picks My Brain On Mental Illness

 Pertinent Pastoral Questions

I recently had a pastor pick my brain and experiences over how I have handled mental illness as a caregiver and what I have learned from my wife’s illness.  He was wrestling with what role he should be playing when faced with mental illness in his congregation.  What should he do when one becomes vulgar, violent, or sexually active which are manifestation of various forms of this disease?  He knew of the grace and mercy Jesus gave to these people, but he also knew of the role that he had to play to “fight sin” particularly when it was "in the camp".  This pastor asked some powerful questions?

“When someone is standing nude in the street, yelling profanity at the police, claiming to be a victim of a governmental plot, do they know what they are doing?  Have they lost all control?

This past weekend I attended NAMI-PA’s (National Association for the Mental Ill) Convention. At a workshop on “Recovery”, one man told his story of when he got manic, surrounded by 12 police cars and cops with their guns drawn, begging them to shoot him because at that moment he “just didn’t care” and was anesthetized to everything around him. He felt totally numb. As he confessed, “It feels good to be manic, but it always gets me in trouble.”  His episode did cause an arrest.  NAMI is making very effectives efforts in training law enforcement personnel on how to handle people with mental illness when in crisis.

The pastor continued, “It seems mental health is cyclical, a good side and a dark side.  When a person is passing through the dark side, what should my role be as a pastor?  I am not to condone their actions, but what can I do when it seems they are losing control? Do I overlook what they are doing as a ‘symptom’ or ‘manifestation’ of their disease?  How do I handle confronting them of their actions when they go back to the good side of their cycle? I am a pastor and need to address ‘sin in the camp’.”

We agreed that education and awareness of mental illness is crucial in having any understanding of the disease. There is a part of the brain which affects one’s morals and religious beliefs, but what happens when the wiring there goes haywire.  Clinically depressed people feel they “lost their salvation”, “lose hope”, and often look at suicide as an alternative.  Manic people super-spiritualize everything thinking they are seeing angels or even God himself. Mental illness can mess with one’s theology when a person is sick. 

The question is still asked, “How responsible is a person when they are mentally ill?”  Our court system recognizes “insanity” as a defense during trials, but what is the Church’s stance? 

When educated and trained well, police recognize when a person is mentally ill and react differently than to one who isn’t.  If they learn to recognize the disease, they can aide that person towards the help they need. Uneducated police often use force as they are trained to do, arrest the person, take them to jail, and process them through our judicial system. Now in prison, not on medication, the person reacts even more negatively, gets thrown into solitary confinement making him a loner, just what he doesn’t need. We would be shocked to know exactly how many people in prison, in solitary confinement are fighting a mental illness and not receiving the treatment they need.

It is sad, but our judicial system often shows more GRACE & MERCY than the Church does for the mentally ill. Jesus always extended Grace and Mercy to those whom he met.  Like the police, my pastor friend was ready to apply “justice” for “righteousness’ sake” to keep sin from the camp, when what just may be needed is Grace and Mercy to a person who knows they have lost control, can’t find out how to get the control back, and is actually crying out for help.