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Do you suffer from a mental illness? Do you know or care for someone who does? Odds are pretty good you can answer “yes” to one of these. One in four adults in the U.S. have a diagnosable mental illness. One in seventeen suffer from serious mental illness. Mental illness is a serious issue for our society, and the church has the same responsibility to those who suffer from mental illness as it does those who suffer from any illness or affliction: to provide physical comfort and the hope of Christ.

Saint John’s is blessed to have a number of members who work, directly or tangentially, in the field of mental health. We have asked these members (as well as a few representatives from organizations closely connected to Saint John’s or our members) to join us on Sunday mornings through the end of December to talk about their experience in the field, how their faith helps them serve and cope with mental illness, and what we as a church can be doing to support those suffering from mental illness.


Our first class in the Faith and Mental Illness series focused on definitions and a preliminary discussion of the church's opportunities and responsibilities to those suffering from mental health issues. Here are a few of the materials we referenced in that class:

Through a Glass, Darkly” Amy Simpson (Christianity Today)

  • 26.2% of Americans ages 18 and older—about one in four adults—suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder. (National Institute of Mental Health)
  • Serious mental illness is present among 6% of the population, or 1 in 17 adults. Antipsychotics are now the top-selling class of drugs in the US.
  • “The mentally ill might feel as if they are on the margins of society, but they’re actually in the mainstream. And with the drugs available today—and future improvements to come—mental illnesses can be treated and managed effectively for most people. And yet our Leadership Journal survey found that only 12.5 percent of respondents said that mental illness is discussed openly and in a healthy way in their church. Fifty percent said mental illness is mentioned in their church’s sermons only 1 to 3 times per year; 20 percent said it is never mentioned.”

Exposing the Myth That Christians Should Not Have Emotional Problems” Dwight L. Carlson (Christianity Today)

  • We tend to deal with mental illness much differently than other illnesses.
  • We tend to believe that our faith/the church/pastor should be sufficient to meet our mental health needs.
  • Exclusion of the mentally ill or “different” from our community

Regeneration, Deliverance or Therapy?” Archibald Hart (Christianity Today)

  • Mental illness has been seen as weak faith, punishment for unconfessed sin, demon possession. Some of these beliefs persist even today.

Mental Illness Manual” (Michigan District LCMS)

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ.
2 Corinthians 1:3–5

Mental illness is a disease of the brain and is defined as a group of disorders causing severe disturbances in thinking, feeling, and/or relating. The result is a diminished capacity for coping with the ordinary demands of life. Although mental illness is an ongoing chronic illness with periodic episodes, it generally produces symptoms such as overwhelming fear, unexplained confusion, unavoidable loss of control, intense self-blame, disorientated/bizarre thinking, and dark despair.

Individuals experience mental illness in their own way. The conditions often happen without a regular pattern. If there are any observable “flags” which could indicate a likelihood or propensity of mental illness, it possibly could be the use of alcohol and other drugs (for purpose of self-medication) and family histories (there may be a genetic component to this disease). Some conditions may be treated by medications, others by psychotherapy, and still others by a combined treatment approach with some type of vocational rehab training and services (this approach has proved most effective). Mental illness can range from common depression and anxiety to schizophrenia and bipolar disorder (manic-depression).

Mental illness in one form or another is extremely common in our society. In fact, major depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide. The most severe forms of mental illness, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or major depression, affect at least one in five families in the United States. Nearly everyone in this country at one time or other has been exposed to or has experienced firsthand some form of mental illness.

Unfortunately, in the past mental illness was not understood for what it is—a biological illness. Instead, it became something embarrassing and frightening. Mental illness became stigmatized and that stigma has persisted to the present day. For some the stigma of mental illness can be as distressing as the illness itself because it isolates the mentally ill individual from those who should be close and supportive: family, friends, and coworkers. So many important people in our lives seem to disappear when they are confronted with the issue of mental illness. The stigma that surrounds all forms of mental illness can only be fought with knowledge and understanding.

Ten Warning Signs of Mental Illness

  1. Marked personality change.
  2. Inability to cope with problems and daily activities.
  3. Strange or grandiose ideas.
  4. Excessive anxieties.
  5. Prolonged depression and apathy.
  6. Marked changes in eating or sleeping patterns.
  7. Thinking or talking about suicide.
  8. Extreme highs and lows.
  9. Abuse of alcohol and other drugs.
  10. Excessive anger, hostility or violent behavior.

It is important that we recognize the isolation of people with mental illness. Simple questions like “How are you?” show care. Empathizing, visiting, praying with, and encouraging participation in the congregation, rather than isolating them, show concern for individuals and families affected by mental illness.

Because this illness often negatively affects the person’s ability to create and maintain relationships, the congregation can help people with mental illness by reaching out in conversation and other socially accepted ways to include them in healthy relationships. Because of the nature of the illness and the stigma associated with it, the illness is often undiagnosed, further adding to the pain and suffering of the afflicted person and the family. The congregation can be present to reflect God’s care and comfort.

The congregation can be sensitive to the financial and social burdens of the family affected by mental illness. By word and deed, the congregation can assure the family that they are not alone. As God’s caring people, the congregation can encourage and help families to talk about their struggles without fear of rejection. As Paul writes: “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” (Galatians 6:2)

To provide more awareness, understanding, and help for people with mental illness and their families, congregations can also ask their pastors to include them, along with those with other kinds of illness, in the prayers during the worship service at least once a month. Because of stigma, prayers for people with mental illness should be general and avoid names.

You will be secure, because there is hope.Job 11:18a

Unique Contributions of Churches and Clergy to Community Mental Health” Kenneth C. Haugk (Community Health Journal)

  • Prevention: Church as “a therapeutic community”
  • Identification: Early detection and referral
  • Restoration: “Reducing the rate of residual impairment”

Light When All is Dark” Kathryn Greene-McCreight (Christianity Today)

  • Suffering is uniquely difficult for one who believes in a good God. (C.S. Lewis)
  • Our hope is Christ, incarnate, knows our suffering. Christ has destroyed death and disease and pain.

Bring us, O Lord God, at our last awakening into the house and gate of heaven, to enter into that gate and dwell in that house, where there shall be no darkness nor dazzling, but one equal light; no noise nor silence, but one equal music; no fears nor hopes, but one equal possession; no ends nor beginning, but one equal eternity; in the habitations of your glory and dominion, world without end.John Donne

The Presenters

Joel Sanford is a case manager at Touchstone Health Partners, who will explain his role in dealing with people with mental health issues and connecting them to services in Fort Collins.

Elise Smith works with youth sexual offenders at a residential treatment facility. Her role there is to decrease her clients’ risk level so that they can safely re-enter the community. She will discuss sexual assault and other offending behaviors.

Gilda Mark is a psychiatric nurse practitioner at Wind River Indian Reservation in central Wyoming. Her role at the health clinics on the reservation include medication management, counseling and administrative duties, all within the context of the Native American cultures of the reservation. She will talk about her role there, the challenges of working in this setting and the predominant problems associated with the patients she sees.

Pete Sherman works for Poudre Valley Hospital as a Licensed Behavioral Health Specialist, dealing with mental health and substance abuse patients. He’ll be providing basic information on both issues.

Janet Barr is an occupational therapist at STRIDE Learning Center in Cheyenne, Wyoming, a developmental preschool which provides early intervention. “Early intervention” is a system of services designed to support children ages birth through six who have developmental delays or are at risk for them due to a medical condition. She works closely with families to understand and build on these children’s strengths and to provide services that support children and families.

Marisa Martinez is the Executive Director of the Alliance for Suicide Prevention of Larimer County, an organization that “[works] to prevent suicide by raising awareness and educating the community and [reaching] out to support families whose lives have been devastated by suicide.”

Pat Parker is the Director of Operations and Programs of Fort Collins-based Crossroads Safehouse, which “advocates for and provides a safe environment for victims of domestic and interpersonal abuse and violence.”

Kala Loptien and Jennifer Musgrave will share their experiences as Alpha Center employees. Alpha Center is a Christian medical clinic in Fort Collins that provides free services related to sexual health.

Brandon Schwartz has been in corrections for eight years. He started in 2003 with the Pima County (Arizona) sheriff department, and is now a youth corrections officer for the Stare of Colorado. He will be talking about mental health in the law enforcement setting, with a focus on metal illness issues for youth and their families. Though he’s more on the security side then their treatment side, he works side-by-side with treatment providers and helps give life advice to the youth. In the process, he’s had first-hand experience with a broad range of mental health conditions.

Melanie Voegeli-Morris is the Student Assistance Services Coordinator for the Poudre School District.

In our wrap-up session, we continued discussing the opportunities and responsibilities presented to the church by mental illness. Pastor Nickel led our member presenters as they fielded questions and offered their thoughts in an open-forum setting.

Many people asked about Alzheimers through the series, so we asked Katie Fahrenbruch, Director of the Fort Collins office of the Alzheimer’s Association, to speak about Alzheimer’s and related dementias and the role of the Alzheimer’s Association.

Are you involved in a Bible study at Saint John’s? There are plenty of opportunities to study the word through the week. Join one of these groups!