The Korea Herald


Church officials struggle to assist mental patients

By Korea Herald

Published : Oct. 15, 2014 - 20:23

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David Mandani heard voices telling him to kill himself. He was paranoid. He saw things others didn’t.

He was spiraling out of control.

Mandani was hospitalized but ran away. Family members found him in a park and asked police for help. He was put in an ambulance, tied down and taken to a psychiatric lockdown facility where he spent several weeks strapped to his bed. His condition was diagnosed as schizophrenia.

Medication and counseling helped clear up the voices and irrational beliefs. Still, he relapsed six times over the next seven years.

He struggled and felt hopeless and sought help from clergy at six churches. Ashamed of his diagnosis, he didn’t mention it. Clergy prayed with him, over him and for him. In one case he was told to repent.

“They dismissed it. They didn’t see it was a health care issue,” Mandani said.
David Mandani describes some of the problems he had prior to realizing that he needed to get mental health help. (MCT) David Mandani describes some of the problems he had prior to realizing that he needed to get mental health help. (MCT)

Mandani’s diagnosis was almost 20 years ago, but his experiences ring true today. A recently released national study conducted by an evangelical group found the stigma of mental illness is still real inside the church. While clergy are often a first resource, the study found many pastors can’t ― or don’t want to ― assist people struggling with mental illness. The study also showed a disparity between what clergy thought they were doing compared to the help parishioners said they received.

According to a study of faith and mental illness compiled by Nashville-based LifeWay Research, most Protestant senior pastors seldom speak to their congregation about mental illness. About 1 in 6 say they speak about mental illness once a year, and about a quarter of pastors are reluctant to help those who suffer from acute mental illness because it takes too much time, they say.

Cosponsored by the nonprofit Christian ministry Focus on the Family, the study was conducted in the wake of mass shootings and suicides traced to mental health issues. The study was done to help churches better assist those affected by mental illness and to create greater awareness among clergy of the need for mental health assistance.

Mental health experts say the August suicide of comedian Robin Williams was a wake-up call for a new look at mental illness, depression and suicide. They say houses of worship have an opportunity to embrace those who are suffering and to take advantage of secular training opportunities.

“There are many fears and stereotypes about mental illness, so it’s not surprising that clergy would feel ill-equipped to help people with mental illness,” said Kita S. Curry, president and CEO of Santa Ana, California-based Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services. “Parishioners trust and confide in clergy about their personal struggles. Mental health professionals should make training and partnering with clergy a priority.”

Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services provides mental health care and substance use disorder services in communities where stigma or poverty limits access. The organization serves about 78,000 adults and children in Southern California each year and trains first responders, including clergy, to recognize warning signs and to help people who are thinking about suicide.

“We’ve found that many clergy are eager for more training and connections to community resources, but just don’t know where to find them,” Curry said.

National statistics show 1 in 4 people will be afflicted with mental illness. And according to the National Institute of Mental Health, people with mental disorders tend to look to clergy for assistance more often than they do psychologists and psychiatrists combined.

In the LifeWay Research study, more than 1,000 senior Protestant pastors were asked how their churches approach mental illness. Researchers also surveyed hundreds of Protestants whose acute mental illness ― either moderate or severe depression, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia ― has been diagnosed. Among them were hundreds of churchgoers. A third survey polled 207 Protestant family members of people with acute mental illness. Researchers also conducted in-depth interviews with experts on spirituality and mental illness.

“Pastors are trained for spiritual struggle. They’re not trained for mental illness,” said Ed Stetzer, executive director of the research group.

“But pastors need more guidance and preparation for dealing with mental health crises,” he said. “They often don’t have a plan to help individuals or families affected by mental illness, and miss opportunities.”

The survey results weren’t a surprise to Kay Warren, who with her husband, pastor Rick Warren, last year launched a ministry focused on mental health. The couple, who founded Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California, 33 years ago, have made their crusade to help those affected by mental illness a priority after the death of their son, Matthew Warren. The 27-year-old, who struggled with lifelong mental illness, ended his life April 5, 2013. Rick Warren later wrote about the help and medical intervention his son had received ― none of which was enough. The couple received more than 10,000 letters following Matthew’s death, many from people sharing their own struggles.

Kay Warren said she was disappointed to learn about the number of pastors who don’t speak about mental illness in their churches and by the disconnect between the amount of help pastors thought they were giving and the amount parishioners thought they got.

“It’s reflective of what I grew up with and what even Saddleback Church would have been like a few years ago,” she said. “I think that’s safe to say it was true of most Christian churches. The culture wasn’t there to talk about mental illness. It was shameful, and it was taboo.”

A piece of good news she took from the survey was that pastors appeared to support the use of medication to treat mental illness.

“I think in the past, they had such a high view of Scripture and God’s ability to work that some believed that taking medicine showed not enough dependence on God’s help,” Warren said. “Mental illness is more and more understood to have biological roots where the brain just doesn’t work right. To take medicine for a physical illness just makes sense.

“The church has a vital role to play,” she said. “The church community has something to contribute to this conversation that’s different than what the mental health community might add, different than what the government might add in terms of legislation. We are whole beings, we need help on all levels. The church can offer care for people as a holistic spiritual, emotional and physical being.”

In March, Rick Warren and Bishop Kevin Vann, spiritual leader of 1.2 million Catholics as head of the Diocese of Orange, partnered in the nation’s first religiously backed conference to address mental health issues. The Gathering on Mental Illness and the Church, in partnership with the National Alliance on Mental Illness Orange County, brought together experts with the goal of equipping pastors and churches nationwide with the tools to help people with mental illness. Thousands turned out for the one-day event.

Matthew Stanford, professor of psychology at Baylor University, recently asked 6,000 people in a church census how well clergy are equipped to deal with mental illness.

Stanford found that most seminaries in North America provide little information and direct discussion on mental health problems. His research says 30 to 40 percent of Christians who go to their pastors with such problems have a negative experience. They’re told they have weak faith, personal sin or that the issues are part of demonic influences, Stanford said.

“A quarter of the people that had mental illness were told to get off their medication because it showed a lack of faith in God’s healing,” he said. “But those same churches would not tell you to not treat cancer.”

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, a nationally noted Jewish scholar and author, knows the potential effects of mental illness. In 1966, his older cousin, Rabbi Morris Adler, was shot and killed in his Detroit synagogue by a young man he had been counseling and who was undergoing psychiatric treatment.

“Many rabbis and clergy learned from that,” Telushkin said. “Some people need medicine and not just counseling. The clergy also needs to understand that, to imagine only the word of God can help someone ― when we mention mental illness, we speak of disease.”

Linda Borders-Killian, a therapist and volunteer CEO of Jacquelyn Bogue Foundation, has spent decades generating support for people with mental illness in Orange County, California. In 1998, she formed a local suicide prevention advocacy group focused on helping raise awareness and creating a suicide prevention strategy for California. In 2004, California voters approved Proposition 63, which the foundation backed, providing more funding for mental health services and helping reduce the suicide rate.

Borders-Killian applauds efforts in the faith community.

“It is significant that Rick Warren, who had lost his son to mental illness and suicide less than a year before, said he wanted to ‘break the Christians’ silence on mental health issues’ and encourage all Christians to speak freely about mental health issues, depression and suicide,” she said.

Today, Mandani, 41, is a social worker at a local hospital. He moved to San Clemente, California, a year ago. A lifelong Christian, he was looking for a church to call home. On July 27, 2013, he and his wife attended their first service at Saddleback Church and it would prove to be life-changing. It was the day Rick Warren returned to the pulpit after a three-month absence following his son’s death.

“It was powerful,” Mandani said. “Rick was validating and highlighting an issue one-quarter of the congregants deal with. I love that he is setting an example for the church. It gives people like me suffering from mental illness a voice. Rick is leading a charge and building a bridge of hope that I wish I had in the 1990s.”

By Erika Ritchie

(The Orange County Register)

(MCT Information Services)