In light of the rise in the number of people diagnosed with mental illness in the past decade, Mental Health & the Gospel Community sets out to address the stigma of mental illness. This is in the hope of better equipping the church to bring God’s redemptive hope to the mentally ill. The book has detailed stories of people with mental illness, caregivers, and pastors who struggled with mental illness. Many stories are struggles related to depression and anxiety disorders, with few of the less common illnesses. The book is easy to read and does not assume much prior knowledge of the various mental illnesses. I commend the courage of the contributors to be vulnerable and write down their own experiences. This helps the reader to better empathise with and understand their struggles, and critically think about what it means to care for and bring hope to those who are struggling.
One recurring theme of the book is to encourage the church to review the way it reaches out to people with mental illness. Various contributors mentioned some unhelpful ways of reaching out, which downplayed the reality and intensity of a person’s struggle with mental illness and caused a lot of hurt within the church. This may stem from the stigma and misunderstanding of mental illness. As such, churches could do their part by equipping their congregation with a basic knowledge of mental illnesses and helping skills. Fortunately, many contributors also shared about helpful ways of reaching out. Generally, it was more effective when the support was holistic and attending to the whole person. In terms of social support, it was helpful when friends and family supported them by listening, understanding their struggles, encouraging, and praying with them.
However, even after being equipped with basic helping skills, caregivers are not immune to feeling helpless when reaching out to people with mental illness. As one of the contributors commented, “even the best of our efforts may be met with its negative effects”. I think it demonstrates the complexity of human brokenness. How can we, as a Church, support people with mental illness? Are we able to listen to the raw painful experiences without judgement? How do we communicate to them the hope that Christ brings to those who are struggling? The book emphasised that those who recovered from mental illness can better understand and reach out to others with the same struggle and should not be looked down upon. Perhaps, it is time for the rest of the Church to learn from them.
I think that journeying with people with mental illness involves continuous learning. It is not something that can be mastered over a short period of time. We need to reach out to the people with help from God, praying with and for them, discerning what is the best way to reach out, and understanding what is helpful for each person. May God strengthen us, and grant us discernment and humility as we continue to learn to better support those who are suffering.
You can view a sample of Mental Health & The Gospel Community here.