Dealing with Parishioners (and Their Families) Struggling with Mental Illness, Addictions, or Both

Dr. Charles McNeil, L.M.F.T
Retired UM Clergy, Psychotherapist, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, and Adjunct Professor, Drew Theological School
Time:  9:30 am – 12:00 noon
Location: Seminary Hall, Room 210

“If emotional pain had a sound, no one would be able to hear the sermon on Sunday morning,” said a United Methodist layperson and mental health practitioner. Two facts follow: 1) People with mental illness and/or addictions are often attracted to religion and the church, either to receive help in a safe environment or to live out the worst impulses of their mental illness. 2) Most congregations, sadly, have few resources for help. Churches ought not lag behind the rest of culture in dealing with these pervasive problems, which can tragically effect and delimit the functioning of persons in their jobs, their relationships, their families, and in their spiritual growth.

The truth is that for many, mental illness is a scary, uncomfortable reality that we would rather not have to deal with. In general, the church tends to handle mental illness and addictions in one of three ways: 1) ignore/deny it–partially because of our ignorance and partially out of  fear. As a result, we sometimes have a tendency to “ignore it and hope for the best.” 2) Treat the problem exclusively as a spiritual issue–from the ancient view of demonic possession, to sin that needs to be overcome,  to simply and sometimes exclusively prescribing more faith or prayer. The reality is that mental illness and addiction are both spiritual and physical problems that need a multi-dimensional (body, mind, and spirit) approach to health. 3)  Refer people to professionals and wash our hands of their trouble. Referrals to professionals are a “must,” but not a substitute. We must also confer with those professionals and provide friendship and love to suffering people, walking alongside them with love and acceptance and not abandoning them to a system that doesn’t give people what we might hope it will.   Congregations need to be a safe place for those who struggle–and for those who assist them. Ideally, there is no place where people are more connected and no place where grace is more expected than the church.

In this class, we will look at some practical approaches that pastors and congregations can take to gather around the sick and the broken with love and compassion. This includes education and greater understanding of  the issues, with an overview of mental illness and addiction that assists with de-mystifying the difficulties and of treatment approaches (psychotherapy, medication, hospitalization and/or residential programs, and 12 Step Programs). Additionally we will look at addressing some tangible and concrete ways that churches can help; not the least of which are talking about the issues, assembling a network of professionals and community resources (ideally before a crisis), fostering friendships with those who are afflicted, and walking through treatments modalities. Opportunities for sharing will be offered, of course, as time permits.

As one person who has been on both sides of the equation shared, “Like it or not, the church is the first place many turn in crisis. And fair or not, the church’s silence or rejection feels like rejection from God. We cannot keep turning away from the most vulnerable among us. It’s time to be part of the solution.” This class seeks to identify, discover, share, and put into practice some helpful solutions in understanding and engaging the problems of mental illness and addiction head-on.

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