MENTAL ILLNESS & PowerPlays with Powerless People

by Bob Whitesel, D.Min., Ph.D., 10/13/15.

Recently IWU/Wesley Seminary  hosted a conference on ministry by and for the physically challenged.  Concurrently my students were studying the book “PowerPlays” about how power is used in churches. A student once shared a very heart-wrenching and powerful story about the physical challenge of mental illness. But, the student learned a great deal from it too.  Here it is (with an accompanying article about how the powerful must deal with the powerless).

The student wrote:

“We had a lady in our church who became a constant embarrassment to many of us (I am ashamed to say). She never bathed or combed her hair. She had many psychological issues that I did not understand back then. (I now understand that she was schizophrenic and bipolar). Many sweet old ladies at the church tried to help her with her hygiene but she never grasped it. She often told outlandish stories that could not be true; will marry a rich doctor next month, was a missionary to Brazil, etc.

One day she accused someone on our church board of beating her with a whip and that she had scars on her back to prove it. At this story I knew I had some justification of getting rid of her for good. I confronted her about the story and she became irate. She picked up a pool stick and threatened me with it and I told her that she was no longer welcome at our church and that she would have to leave immediately. Even a few weeks later when she returned I had instructed our ushers to not allow her in. As odd as it sounds, at that time I felt like I was the hero. I rid us of that strange woman. Let someone else deal with her.

But I never treated her with respect and never sought out the professional help she needed (even if she would have refused). God was gracious to me and she returned two years later. I was humbled when she came and sought me out to bring me a gift of M&M’s. I left the church the church soon after and was unable to get her the help she needed. But I explained the situation to the new pastor and gave him references to find her help.

What I learned from this was to pay attention to my motives. Maybe in the end it would have been good for her to leave but not the way or the reason I wanted. Never were my actions with grace, peace, love, gentleness, kindness, etc. towards her. I have since asked for her forgiveness and have seen God’s grace demonstrated despite my behavior.”

The student’s story highlighted a very important weakness in many churches. And that is that as professional ministers we often don’t know how or where to refer people with mental challenges.

Below is an article from the United Methodist News Service (Nov. 11, 1998) that shares a couple stories.  One story tells how a mentally challenged youth pastor was initially ostracized because of her mental illness, but later helped start a church that ministers to the physically challenged.

Churches must overcome fear, minister to mentally ill
A UMNS News Feature by Tim Tanton,* 11/11/98.
Retrieved from http://archive.wfn.org/1998/11/msg00116.html

Lynn Swan’s career as the professional youth lay leader of a large Alabama church ended when she was diagnosed as having a mental illness.

“I was just told that because of the illness, I didn’t have a job to return to,” she said.

Swan had gone into the hospital feeling ill and not knowing what the problem was. She was kept there for three weeks while she was stabilized with medicine. She was diagnosed as having bipolar disorder, a chemical imbalance in the mood center of the brain. Symptoms include severe depression and, at other times, manic behavior.

When she left the hospital, she was fired from her job with the United Methodist congregation.

“It was very devastating because I really enjoyed my work, and I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye.”

That dismissal in May 1990 was the beginning of a long struggle for Swan. It led to financial ruin, the loss of her career and other setbacks. Today, her voice joins others who say churches have a role to play in serving the mentally ill.

Churches are well qualified for helping people with mental illnesses, but in many cases they must overcome their own ignorance of the problem, according to advocates for the mentally ill.

Mental illness “is in many ways the leprosy of today,” said the Rev. James F. McIntire, associate pastor at First United Methodist Church of Germantown in Philadelphia and an advocate for people with disabilities. If you’re in a psychiatric hospital, the pastor might not even come and visit, he said.

“My big thing is that mental illness is what we call a no-casserole disease,” said Angie O’Malley, an instructor in family studies at the University of Kentucky in Lexington. People who go into the hospital with a mental illness don’t get cards, candy, flowers and meals from church members, she said.

That’s partly because of the ignorance of church members and others, she said. “Because of the stigma surrounding mental illness, they are afraid.”

“Stigma” is a common word in discussions about mental illness.

“The stigma is what’s really difficult to live with in this society,” Swan said.

Being able to deal with that stigma and fear can make the difference in how a church is able to minister to the mentally ill. O’Malley and her husband, a professor at Asbury Theological Seminary, have a 23-year-old daughter who has schizophrenia. They went to two United Methodist churches that were not supportive of them before finally joining Centenary United Methodist Church in Lexington. There, the congregation reached out to them.

The United Methodist Church was not there for Swan. “It failed,” she said. “I think there were certain individuals in the church who were good, but the system failed, and I blame that on fear and ignorance and politics.”

The church failed her because when she was in need, she was totally isolated. “I really, really needed the church, and I didn’t have it,” she said. The politics, she explained, relate to the fact that it’s not popular to have a mentally ill person on staff.

Swan, McIntire and O’Malley shared their stories while in Nashville, Tenn., to participate in a Nov. 10 teleconference, “Mental Illness … Paint a Different Picture,” sponsored by the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries’ Health and Relief Unit; the Board of Church and Society; Pathways to Promise; and United Methodist Communications.

Swan’s journey has been hard. When she lost her job at the Alabama church, she was able to buy a house in Florida as part of her severance. As she was moving into her house, she sat down and became depressed. She overdosed on lithium and vodka, then went to the beach to die. A runner revived her and took her to a hospital.

“I awoke with restraints on my ankles and my hands,” Swan said. “I was told by the doctor I was very lucky to be alive.”

Swan didn’t feel so lucky then. She wanted to go to sleep and never wake up. For the next seven years, she struggled with thoughts of committing suicide. A year ago, she got past the point where that was a temptation.

For four years after her firing in Alabama, she went through a series of jobs, including working with a Presbyterian church in Michigan. Finally, she realized that she couldn’t keep working. She resigned from her job with a church in Florida in 1994.

Meanwhile, she continued battling depression. She underwent 50 electroconvulsive – or shock – treatments in about four years and also took medication. Finally, in December 1996, she began suffering “significant memory problems,” and the treatments were discontinued.

The high costs of her treatment forced her to file for medical catastrophic bankruptcy. She lost everything except her clothes, car and some personal belongings.

Swan remains “stuck in the poverty cycle.” Her monthly medicine costs are $1,200, and in order to receive government help through Medicaid, she must live on minimal income. She receives a disability check, but any honorarium or other money she earns as a motivational speaker must be given away.

“I live on $621 a month,” she said. “I live with a friend.”

Now 39, Swan lives in Cleveland and works as a motivational speaker. She and a group have recently started a nondenominational church, 25:40 Mission Way, with a focus on the mentally ill, people in prisons, the homeless, and people addicted to alcohol and other substances.

Like Swan, McIntire has struggled with mental illness.

“I’ve wrestled with my own depression, and several years ago, it got very deep for me,” he said.

His senior pastor helped him understand how the depression was affecting his job, so McIntire took a sabbatical – though not without reservations.

“I hesitated in doing it because of the stigma that can be attached to having a mental health issue in your life,” he said.

However, unlike Swan, McIntire had the support of the senior pastor and church staff. When he returned to work, he also found the congregation supportive. He preached on mental illness, and that led to congregation members sharing their own experiences.

“It opened our relationship,” he said.

The struggles of two family members have been important to McIntire’s ministry. His father fought depression and eventually committed suicide. His daughter has a developmental disability; at age 10, she has just learned to walk, and she can’t articulate words.

“She and my father have really been a powerful piece of my faith development over the years and have really become a center for my vision in ministry in working with people with disabilities and making the church a more open and inclusive place,” he said.

Churches try to be open and inclusive, but often they don’t know how, McIntire said. A church might think that building a ramp is way of being open, yet it is not reaching people in the community and bringing them up the ramp, he said.

“One out of four or five families is affected by mental illness,” he said. That brings the issue closer to home, he said.

“A person who has a mental illness also still has a spiritual life,” McIntire said, “… and what they’re struggling with in their mental illness is also affecting their spiritual health as well.”

Mentally ill people are less likely to be violent and more likely to be withdrawn, O’Malley said. They are often lonely and need a friend.

Churches are good about providing friendship ministries, about calling people, taking meals to them or just getting out and taking someone to a movie, she said. Often, people or families dealing with mental illness also need financial support to cover the cost of medicine and treatment because health insurance policies are “discriminatory” and don’t cover such disorders to the same extent that they do other diseases, she said.

“In a lot of ways, churches don’t need new ministries,” O’Malley said. “They just need to be more intentional in meeting the needs of mental illness with the ministries they have.”

Mentally ill people also have a contribution to make to the ministry of a church, she said. “If we exclude them from our communities, we miss out.

“The church is the only place in society that has a perspective of hope,” O’Malley said, ” … and a readymade supportive community.”

*Tanton is news editor with United Methodist News Service in Nashville, Tenn.