Thinking. Ministry and mental illness

A guest post by Jill W. If you've been following my thoughts on healing and anger and faith, you might be interested in this too.

See full size imageApproximately 5 years ago I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder – also known as manic depression, a mood disorder characterised by swings of elevated mood and periods of depression. The symptoms and treatment of my illness have had a dramatic impact on all aspects of my life, but the effect on my Christian life has been absolutely devastating. Nothing has been the same in my relationship with God or in my relationship with the church.

The early days (and months) of my illness were unchartered territory and navigating a safe course was a challenge not only for me, but for those around me. I was blessed with wonderful Christian friends and a committed ministry team but none of us were experienced in dealing with mental illness and none of us were prepared for how difficult things could be.

Along the way we found things that would prove to be of enormous benefit. We also made mistakes. The patience and dedication of my friends and my minister can not be understated. I hope that the lessons we learnt may be of some benefit to others who may be supporting someone with mental illness in a Christian context.

It’s impossible to place too much emphasis on the value of prayer where someone is suffering with mental illness (or any other hardship). Even when I could not pray for myself, I took great comfort in the knowledge that others were praying for me. A simple sms saying ‘I’m praying for you’ often made a real difference.

It’s a wonderful statement of friendship and love that people care enough to pray. Knowing that they were thinking of me was something to hold onto when times were hard, and then of course there are the real benefits of prayer – petitioning our great and powerful God to intervene. Answers to prayer seemed slow in coming, but I believe that the overall improvement in my condition is an answer to the prayers prayed fervently over a long period of time.

As well as praying for a sufferer, it’s worth offering to pray with them too. I found it to be of enormous value when people offered to pray with me – either individually or in a group.

Reminding the sufferer of previous answers to prayer, however small, can also be a big encouragement. For me, reminders of God’s faithfulness in previous down-swings and reminders of his gift of perseverance were very helpful.

Scripture is, of course, the other primary tool for ministry. Be warned though, Romans 8:28 (‘In all things God works for the good of those who love him…”) is not likely to get you very far. When in the midst of depression; my inner voice continuously told me that I was a failure and the last thing I needed was to feel that I was a failure as a Christian too. I felt pressure to live up to ‘bible expectations’ and to ‘suffer well’, but I did not rejoice in my suffering, I was not joyful in all circumstances and I did not want to be refined by fire. Trite answers and memory verses have the potential to make things much worse. So how can we use God’s word in ministering to someone in a depressive episode?  Of course everyone is different, but I found great solace in the Psalms.

The Psalms present the full range of emotions, and my doubt, anger and distress found expression there. Like the Psalmist in Psalm 88, I cried out to God day and night and felt that darkness was my only friend. The Psalms gave me encouragement that my distress and angst were not completely unacceptable to God and that gave me an anchor point to keep reading and praying through these precious verses.

I was recently asked what response we should have if someone was angry with God. Should we try and get them to repress it? Short answer, no. I think if I had not been allowed to vent my feelings – as jumbled as they were, there would have been much more guilt. God is big enough to hear our angry thoughts and he loves us enough to want us to be honest with him. I think that being angry at God is still a sign of being in relationship with God.

Despite the valuable contribution of both prayer and bible reading, it’s important to acknowledge that sometimes things just don’t go as we would wish them to. Things don’t always get better. Sometimes we just continue to ask Why?

Knowing all the answers is not a pre-requisite for ministering to others. I am most grateful for those who walked alongside me, who were committed for the long term, who listened, and who were simply there for me. Those treasured brothers and sisters showed me Christ’s love in a very dark time. A gift from God I shan’t easily forget.