From the Worldwide Faith News archives www.wfn.org
Churches must overcome fear, minister to mentally ill
11 Nov 1998 14:39:58
Nov. 11, 1998 Contact: Tim Tanton*(615)742-5470*Nashville, Tenn.
NOTE: Photographs are available with this story.
A UMNS News Feature
By Tim Tanton*
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
"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
"Stigma" is a common word in discussions about mental illness.
"The stigma is what's really difficult to live with in this society,"
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
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
"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
"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,
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