"Accompaniment" and "God's work. Our hands." are two ELCA phrases that come to mind when I consider ministry to those with a mental illness. Mental illness is a journey, one with peaks and valleys, plateaus and rapids. What it is not, for the most part, is curable. One can be in remission, one learns to manage symptoms and/or find the right balance of medications and therapy, but it can return. So when considering ministry to the mentally ill, one must be willing to walk alongside for the journey, reaching out when the way is rough and rejoicing when the light comes. It is not a journey for the fainthearted. But it is one God walks every day.
Look around your congregation. Mental illness is sometimes considered the hidden disease. Can you see the person who is depressed (perhaps they no longer attend)? How about the parents concerned about their newly diagnosed schizophrenic daughter? Or the family coping with the self-harming behavior of their teen? They are there, whether or not you can see them — perhaps in the congregation, certainly in the community. And they are seeking God's presence in their lives, a presence that is shown by our work, our ministry. They will not see God unless they see God in you.
Loneliness and low self-esteem are powerful symptoms of depression. All the more reason to reach out with the hand of friendship, inviting someone to dinner or out for coffee, to serve on a committee, or join the choir or Bible study. Symptoms may seem to interfere: those with a depressive disorder may become withdrawn; someone with borderline personality disorder may become clingy or act out; an individual with bipolar disorder suddenly becomes manic. It is important to see these behaviors simply as symptoms of an illness rather than a choice, no different from a fever that indicates infection or a mass, cancer. Mental illness is a biological/brain disorder. See the person behind the symptoms.
Mental illness is the "no casserole" disease, as I discovered. Several years ago I had a bout with cancer, and I received numerous cards, meals and well-wishes from my congregation. Not so when I later suffered from an episode of a major depressive disorder. Only those closest to me responded in any way. Yet someone coping with mental illness may be in greater need of that meal, visit or encouraging card. Prayer, also, is important, but combine it with the offer of your presence. While it may seem helpful to tell someone you will pray for them, simply walking away after that offer may leave the person feeling more isolated and ignored. By all means pray, but pray "with," encourage "with" and include them.
Educate yourself about the cause and symptoms of mental illness. Start with the mental disabilities page on the ELCA website: http://www.elca.org/Growing-In-Faith/Ministry/Disability-Ministries/Mental-Illness.aspx.
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