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This is an excerpt from “Ministering to Those with Chronic Mental Illness” by Elaine Ritterling

Mental illnesses are brain chemical imbalances, not character defects; they are not caused by demons or sin, or the result of poor parenting. They will affect one in five families. Children and adolescents are not immune from these “no fault” brain sicknesses either, with approximately three million having a serious mental illness.

Yet mental illness is often called the “no casserole sickness.” When someone is ill or injured in an accident, they receive cards, gifts and other expressions of love. Outside of pastoral visits, many mentally ill and their families express sorrow and feelings of isolation over how their illness is ignored by fellow members of the parish in which they are members.

Lack of knowledge breeds stigma and misunderstanding. Studies show that stigma is the hardest handicap to overcome as the mentally ill become stabilized on their medication and attempt to return to work and society. Because of the stigma and misunderstandings concerning mental illness, many mentally ill and their families keep quiet and do not want anyone to know they are dealing with such illnesses.

Families often feel they are living on a roller coaster as their loved one alternates between periods of seeming “normalcy” to severe psychosis; and coping with these changes is a never-ending challenge. Since mental illnesses are brain disorders, the ill person’s actions, speech and habits are affected; and it is necessary to remember he or she needs the same loving attention we would give if they were confined to a bed. During the bad times in my son’s illness, my daughter and I used the word “pneumonia” as a reminder to treat him with the same love and consideration we would anyone ill in bed.

The Great Physician has called upon us as His messengers to minister to those who are ill and suffering, especially those within the household of faith (Galatians 6:10); and we need to extend that love to include those suffering from mental illnesses as well as their families, who struggle to cope on a long term basis.

The mentally ill may not always be up to a personal visit, but notes and cards are always welcome; and the family needs to be assured of your love and the knowledge they are not alone but are being remembered in your prayers. Each person with a mental illness is a unique individual in God’s eyes with special gifts and challenges. Seeing these people as individuals helps to break down the barriers of fear and misunderstanding mental illnesses provoke. Their families need to be reminded there is always hope as new treatments and medications are developed.

It is doubly important the ill person be made to feel welcome when he or she is able to attend worship and participate in church activities even though dress or speech may not be the norm. A man suffering from schizophrenia simply stated, “I want people to know we are all human beings and wish to be treated like anyone else.”

Upon reflection of my own experience, our son’s illness led us to the Michigan District Committee on Mental Illness and we have been members since it was officially organized thirteen years ago. It has been difficult for our son to realize he must take his meds even when he is feeling well and has stopped several times which necessitated hospitalization. Words cannot describe the agony of going to court to get the necessary paper work to have our son committed involuntarily to the hospital and watch the police and ambulance come to take him to the hospital. But we are thankful for understanding judges and humane police. Currently, our son has stabilized on his medication and is looking for work.

The entire article was originally published in the LCMS Michigan District's October/November 2006 issue of Michigan in Touch.

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