Addressing a ‘Forbidden Subject’
About 10 years ago, the ministry of Disability Concerns contracted with two marriage and family therapists to create a study and leader's guide to help groups talk about mental health and mental illness using Scripture as their guide.
It is titled “Let’s Talk! Breaking the Silence Around Mental Health in Our Communities of Faith.” In this study, which seems to be gaining new traction because of the COVID-19 pandemic, participants have the chance to explore their beliefs and responses to people who experience mental illness and then discuss how the church might be helpful in this journey.
“The authors were diligent in writing extensive notes in the leader's guide, because we knew that the topic might intimidate potential leaders who do not have mental health training,” said Mark Stephenson, director of Disability Concerns.
“They did a great job, and we had a lot of interest when it first came out.” For several years, he didn't hear much about it; then lately, he heard from people who used it to lead groups, he said.
Stephenson credits the renewed interest to issues brought up by the COVID-19 pandemic. Since the pandemic began, he said, research has shown that job losses, decreased income, social distancing, disrupted routines, and fear about catching the novel coronavirus have led to increased depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and substance use.
“I'm thankful that people are finding this study again in this difficult time. I highly recommend it for churches and any group of people wanting to talk openly about what so many of us are experiencing,” said Stephenson.
One of those who contacted Stephenson was Lynn Wielenga, a member of Bethel Christian Reformed Church in Sioux Center, Iowa. She used the guide in an adult Sunday school class. She held one class in March just before the pandemic hit causing churches to close. She finished the final weeks of the course when her church began meeting again in August.
“It (the resource) was helpful in getting us to discuss mental illness and realize how stigma keeps people silent in suffering,” she wrote in a note to Stephenson. Breaking down the stigma is important, she said. People with mental illness should feel safe to talk.
“I’ve been especially interested in mental illness after my father was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2007. After his personal crisis, I became involved in NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness). It was at a local NAMI support group that I learned about this Let’s Talk curriculum.”
Wielenga began to teach the course as an overall way to offer information to church members on mental illness. But the arrival of COVID-19 brought the issue of mental illness into the forefront of people’s lives and the class became a chance for wide-ranging discussions on how the coronavirus was having an effect on church members and community members in a number of ways.
“This course gave a window into what some people are going through,” she said. “This is a stressful time for us all. For some it has ratcheted up what people with mental illness have to deal with.”
During the course, people spoke about suicides, bankruptcies that have hit farming operations, anxiety that people are dealing with, and grief and loss over what the pandemic has taken away.
“The class made us question our own attitudes about what others are going through. We know of a man in our congregation who has dealt with depression for years,” and he was willing to talk to them about his illness, said Wielenga.
Especially comforting, but also thought provoking and challenging, to Wielenga and others were the Scripture readings in Let’s Talk. For instance, they read psalms by David, who in his distress cried out to God in Psalm 88: 1-2, “O Lord, God of my salvation, I cry out day and night before you. Let my prayer come before you; incline your ear to my cry!”
“We could find some hope and help in the readings that we went through,” said Wielenga. “The readings helped us to realize the idea of talking about mental illness was important. We need to break the silence around this subject.”
Another key passage they looked at was John 9:1-4, in which Jesus is walking along when he sees a man born blind and his disciples ask him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
Jesus tells them that no one sinned, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.” Considering this in light of mental illness, said Wielenga, we are asked to look at someone with mental challenges as a child of God and not someone who sinned and deserves shame.
“In the Bible readings, we read and talked about characters experiencing a lot of emotion.” There is Moses who, said Wielenga, “has his struggles.”
And there was the prophet Elijah who “sat down under a solitary broom tree and prayed that he might die. ‘I have had enough, Lord. Take my life, for I am no better than my ancestors who have already died’,” Elijah says (1 Kings 19:4). And there was Paul who suffered many things — shipwrecks, beatings — and yet endured.
Also, said Wielenga, they read Psalm 42 which offers hope in God; Romans 12:9-21 which teaches how we are to treat each other; and II Cor. 1:3-7 that encourages us to share in others’ suffering and to comfort one another.
“We talked in class about how important it is to listen, really listen to people if someone reaches out to you” and wants to talk about their difficulties, said Wielenga.
In a feedback form Wielenga received at the end of the class, someone addressed this issue, writing that the class “brings out ideas that people can use to help a person with mental illness cope.”
Another person wrote that the class gave a refreshing “freedom to talk about a ‘forbidden’ subject.”