By Adam Chaney
My life dramatically changed a few months ago, while reading a book about Christian community development. A single sentence opened my eyes and spirit to an issue I had not seen before. The line read: “Serious mental illness is the leprosy of our day.”
Scripture reveals that lepers were required to live away from normal society, separated from the camp, or outside the city walls (Num. 5:1-4; 12:10-15). Theologically, the people of God considered leprosy to be a curse and punishment from God (2 Kings 5:7; 2 Chron. 26:20), making the infirmed person unclean and unfit for community living. No one was even allowed to touch them. Yet, in Matthew 8:1-4, Jesus defies the social standards and stigmas as he “stretched out his hand and touched” a man with leprosy, because our Lord chose to see the man and care for his infirmity.
The church has been given the ministry of reconciliation in this world to reveal Christ, relieve suffering, and restore lives. The problem is, far too often we fail to see those who need ministry because we have relegated them to the periphery of society, outside of our church encampments. Often, people with mental illness are considered unholy because they fail to sustain peace and joy in their lives. They are thought of as sinful because they are too anxious or fearful. Those with more pronounced disorders are viewed as a distraction to worship, or worse, a threat to the safety of the congregation. Therefore, the church fails to welcome those with mental illness and perpetuates injustice by propagating social stigmas.
Perhaps, we console ourselves with the idea that people with mental health issues are a small fraction of society. Our churches don’t fail to see those with a mental illness because we rarely encounter someone who is suffering from one. Like leprosy, this issue is uncommon, so we don’t need to be concerned. I used to think along these same lines, until I took a closer look at the matter.
According to the National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI), approximately 1 in 5 adults in the U.S., that is 43.8 million people, experience mental illness in a given year. Nearly 1 in 25 (10 million) adults in America live with a serious mental illness. One-half of all chronic mental illness begins by the age of 14 and three-quarters by the age of 24. What’s worse, is the vast majority of people suffering from mental illness do not receive treatment and care. As a whole, our nation has failed the mentally ill. The system is completely broken. Insurance companies rarely finance long-term treatment and access to professional care is difficult to find. The NAMI also reports that nearly 60% of adults with a mental illness did not receive mental health services of any kind in the previous year. This leads to unemployment, poverty, homelessness, and incarceration. In 44 states, the largest mental health institution is the prison system.
The truth is, our churches are full of people with mental health issues. It is safe to say that we encounter mental illness on daily basis. Unfortunately, most of us are ill-equipped to identify and properly care for those who are suffering. This is due to our false preconceptions and sheer lack of concern. Our physical, social, and religious structures manifestly ignore the needs of the most marginalized among us.
However, I believe this can change. We can do better. In Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus tells his followers that they will inherit the kingdom, because they cared for him in his hunger, estrangement, nakedness, sickness, and imprisonment. Surprised by this testimonial, the disciples ask, “when did we ever see you in that condition?” Jesus responds: “‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
It is time to do for the least of these by creating safe and welcoming environments within our congregations for those across the spectrum of mental illness. Pastors need to talk openly and often, from the pulpit and around the table, about mental health. This requires a greater level of intentionality and education. “Individuals experiencing psychological distress are more likely to go to clergy before any other professional group; this is especially true in minority populations.” Pastors need well-vetted referral lists of professional care providers. Mental health resources can be acquired, communicated, and made available to our congregations and communities. Congregational leaders can be trained to recognize mental health problems and establish faith based support groups.
Now that my eyes have been opened, I am responsible to respond. As our institutions have largely failed to care for the mentally ill, we, the Body of Christ have an opportunity to do what our Lord calls us to do. It is time for the church to care for the unseen among us by purposefully destigmatizing mental illness.
Adam J. Chaney is the pastor of First Baptist Church Riesel, Texas. He is a CBF Leadership Scholar pursing an M.Div. in Theology from George W. Truett Theological Seminary at Baylor University. He received his B.A. in Christian Theology from Houston Baptist University.
 Jimmy Dorrell, Trolls and Truth, 82.
 Chalfant et al., 1990; Wang, Berglund, & Kessler, 2003.