My friend’s young daughter was hospitalized with a serious illness, and it wasn’t long until her church set up a “take them a meal” account. As I quickly checked out my calendar and signed up for a time slot, it touched me to see that several slots were already filled. When a family is in crisis due to a serious illness, accident or death, it’s not unusual for friends and acquaintances to rally around them—to jump in with meals, gift cards, rides, childcare, etc. Anything to help make their life a little easier in the midst of such turmoil.
When I interviewed parents for my book, A Day in the Life, the final question I asked was, “If you had a wish list, what would be on it?” Over and over the parents alluded to the exhaustion they so often struggled with, especially when their child is symptomatic and unstable. Many parents said they would love to have an occasional meal brought in, or child care for their other kids, perhaps even respite care to allow them an evening out, and so forth. Unfortunately, the typical response from others—even from the church—has been silence.
There’s a reason mental illness has been pegged the “no-casserole” illness.
Mental health and the church’s response is one of the topics covered in my book, A Day in the Life. I wanted to know what other families encountered within their church homes. Did they share with their pastors the challenges they were experiencing with their children? If so, did they feel listened to? Understood? Believed? Were they and their children well-loved and supported? If they did not share with their pastors or leaders, why not? What held them back from asking for the church’s support? I was sad—but not entirely surprised—to hear that, for a variety of reasons, many parents suffer in silence.
Here is an excerpt from A Day in the Life, chapter nine, “Church: Dealing With Our No-Casserole Illnesses.”
When asked about their church experiences, the majority of the parents interviewed were, at best, ambivalent about their church family and, at worst, completely frustrated, disillusioned and even hurt by their churches. Parents fear being misunderstood and judged by others, and it is heartbreaking that many parents do indeed experience this very thing as they struggle with their child’s mental illness.
We want our churches to be places of refuge, comfort, hope and healing. We have an intense desire to know we matter to the members of our church fellowship. Yet for many of us who have a child living with mental and emotional health issues, our experiences within the local church have been very difficult—even painful. Amy Simpson, in her excellent book “Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission”, writes, ‘People with mental illness and their families—especially parents of children with mental illness—often feel condemned for their suffering. Instead of walking through the doors of the church to find the no-condemnation grace of Jesus, they find an assumption that they must have done something to deserve their suffering. They find a subtle expectation that they’d better fix themselves if they want to be part of a fellowship.’
And so we remain silent. We hesitate to share our deepest pain with those we should be able to trust the most. We long to be drawn in by love, but we fear we will be shunned and shamed.
Parent after parent had stories to tell about their experiences with their local churches. Some experiences were uplifting and encouraging, while others were disheartening. Many parents, on some level, understand why their church family reacts the way it does to them and their children, yet they wish the church was more helpful and empathetic to their needs. Many feel overlooked by their church family. They rightly acknowledge that if their child had cancer or some other serious physical illness or injury, the church members would do everything possible to offer help. Simpson puts it this way, “As we’re busy enthusiastically delivering meals to suffering people, we are largely ignoring the afflictions of 25 percent of our population. That’s about equal to the total percentage of people diagnosed with cancer each year, those living with heart disease, those infected with HIV and AIDS and those afflicted with diabetes—combined. No wonder people … call mental illness the ‘no-casserole illness.’ In contrast to the care we provide for others, we have very little patience with those whose diseases happen to attack their minds. And many people suffer in silence.”
Perhaps we need to take it even one step further and ask this probing question: Why is it that, in this age of mission trips and serve projects, we can reach out so lovingly and generously to strangers and completely miss the needs of many we rub shoulders with each Sunday?
Mother Teresa addressed that very thing when she said, “It is easier to love people far away. It is not always so easy to love those close to us. It is easier to give a cup of rice to relieve hunger than to relieve the loneliness and pain of someone unloved in our own home. Bring love into your home for this is where our love for each other must start.”
A Day in the Life, p 115-116
This side of heaven we would do well to live out the words expressed in I Thess. 5:11. “So speak encouraging words to one another. Build up hope so you’ll all be together in this, no one left out, no one left behind. I know you’re already doing this; just keep on doing it” (MSG).
 Amy Simpson, Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and The Church’s Mission, (InterVarsity Press, 2013), 110.
 Ibid, p 37.
photo credit: sheri-silver-1267195-unsplash.jpg