I have the privilege of sharing my site again with a good friend. Meet Janeen Ippolito: Janeen Ippolito is an award-winning author of bestselling fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. She’s also a mental health/chronic illness survivor and a veteran of Christian ministry who believes in church environments that uplift and grow genuine, supportive community. Plus, she’s a publishing industry professional who cohosts the Author Elevate Podcast and leads Uncommon Universes Press. When not writing, she explores random hobbies or posts funny memes. Connect with her here.
Janeen has some powerful things to offer churches that are looking to invest in the mental health community:
As I began drafting this essay, I realized I was writing to two audiences. I was writing to those in ministry who seek to understand mental illness better, but also to those in ministry who may be struggling with mental issues themselves and may not know it. We are fallen humans living in a fallen world. Our minds suffer from that brokenness as much as our bodies.
You could be suppressing your own issues as unimportant, as necessary suffering for the sake of the gospel, or as something shameful that could cause you to lose your job because of a perceived weakness. You may be thinking that God doesn’t care about your struggles. That your own performance as a Christian is all that matters. That everyone suffers in this fallen world, so why does it matter if you get it labeled? And at times, it’s all you can do to stay together, so why go looking for reasons to fall apart.
If you don’t relate to the above, then understand that some of your coworkers in ministry likely do.
I struggle with anxiety, depression, OCD, and low self-worth. I struggle with PTSD from trauma. I also worked in ministry for eight years as a Christian school teacher. I’m married to a man who taught in Christian schools for ten years and is now in his second year as a domestic missionary. I understand the inner workings of ministry and ministry leadership. It’s hard to be honest. It’s hard to take off the mask. Everyone expects you to have all the answers, and if you don’t, they’re often quick to point fingers. The church is full of sinners saved by grace, and all of us in the sanctification process still indulge in gossip, judgment, and the tendency to create cliques and blow off people who aren’t convenient to us.
Even though it presents challenges, we need to address health and mental illness in the church. You don’t have to go looking for mental illness. There is no “we don’t have that here.” I guarantee there are people in your church who are coping with mental health crises. I guarantee there are people who are depressed, anxious, or enduring sleepless nights due to trauma. We all need grace and help for our broken minds as much as for our broken bodies. And the church should and must be a place of hope and community for Christians to uplift and encourage those struggling with mental health issues—because that can easily be all of us.
So how do we go about doing this? Unfortunately for problem-solving types, there is no one-size-fits-all answer. Mental illness comes from a variety of places—trauma, environment, or preexisting physical or neurological conditions. And sometimes (often, actually) there are multiple factors at play. When I had a breakdown with suicidal ideation, it was the combination of a stressful job change, a difficult living situation, preexisting neurological conditions (ADD and autistic spectrum disorder), and awful coping mechanisms where my brain had “healed wrong” from past trauma.
Bottom line: unless you’re a mental health professional working specifically in the field, you cannot and should not approach mental health situations with a problem-solving mindset. You’re simply not equipped to do so, and acting like you are can add insult to injury—or worse, give someone false hope or cause lasting damage. Instead, I’m going to give you some tips on how to build a church environment that addresses mental health battles and encourages struggling members to come forward, receive support, and find their place as part of the body of Christ in their weaknesses as well as their strengths.
First, encourage openness about mental illness from the pulpit. I’m not saying you should preach a sermon on mental illness (although there are passages of Scripture that lend toward this topic), but when bringing up suffering, don’t just focus on the physical. We’re often encouraged to pray for upcoming surgeries and sudden illnesses, and that’s it. When preaching about suffering and difficulties, simply include mental suffering as a valid part of living in this fallen world. Be consistent as much as possible. Even this small change makes a difference. As a bonus, when asking for prayer requests, invite people to request prayer for physical or mental challenges. In this way, you show those individuals that they are seen.
Second, when someone brings up a mental health issue, engage with it. This is an act of bravery on the speaker’s part because many people with mental health issues are taught to hide it, either from themselves, their families, or from our culture that promotes aggressive optimism and can-do spirit. Also, don’t rely on stereotypical portrayals of mental health conditions in media—before you is a unique person with their own life experiences. Ask questions with an open, inquiring mind, questions like “What is that like for you?” or “How long have you been feeling this way?” or “Are you able to cope with this?” Listen first, with discernment, and only offer to help if it’s requested and/or you’re equipped to do so.
Third, understand that mental illness doesn’t just impact an individual, it impacts an entire family. Hurting people often hurt those around them, sometimes unintentionally. The daily strain of living with someone who has mental health issues carries the same challenges as living with someone with physical issues. Mental illness, or its underlying conditions, can run in families. People coping with mental illness may unwittingly lash out and inflict trauma on those around them. And since family loyalty is a powerful thing, mental illness may be unconsciously or consciously covered up by the surrounding family members. These dynamics are complex and often delicate, so if you sense a need to act in any way, even just connecting an individual to a mental health professional, do so with care and discernment.
Finally, foster connections with qualified, compassionate mental health professionals in your church body or community. You can’t solve all the problems, and honestly, it’s not your job to do so. But you and your leadership team can partner with those who are called to mental health work and have a list of resources available for people in your church who need help. Use discernment here, both for a Christian worldview and also for individuals who acknowledge that mental illness is comprised of real conditions and not simply a spiritual attack to be prayed for or talked through. Prayer is a powerful thing, but if someone comes in with a broken leg, you don’t just pray for the leg—you arrange for the leg to be set and healed.
Of course, you can do even more for mental illness in the church, including a special talk, Sunday school series, or even a support group. However, I understand that ministry leaders have busy schedules and that every church community is unique. Start with thoughtful study, research, and small changes. Be mindful of any mental brokenness you have yourself. Surrender that to Christ, then prayerfully seek ways to bring that awareness into the community that you lead. No matter how overwhelming it seems, we serve a powerful God who has provided all we need in Christ Jesus through the Holy Spirit. Go forth in wisdom, humility, and knowledge to serve the least of these.