What would you do if you knew a paranoid schizophrenic was coming to your church next Sunday?

Maybe quietly make your door security team aware?  You could certainly be forgiven for being just a little scared.  How often do we hear a journalist reporting on a serious crime taking care to mention that the suspect was thought to be ‘suffering from schizophrenia’ or from ‘severe mental illness’?

There’s someone with a paranoid psychosis (a separation from reality) coming to my church this Sunday, in fact – since we have a congregation of around 250 – there are probably around five people living with psychotic illness who are a part of our church community.

How do I know that one of them will be at our service this week?  

Because I am planning to be there.  

I have a diagnosis of ‘schizoaffective disorder’, which combines symptoms of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder (sometimes still known as manic depression).  And I suffer from acute paranoia at times, thrown into a world of evil presences, bugged rooms and messages coming through the TV or radio.  When I go to church in this state, I am desperately vulnerable and not at all likely to commit a crime.

In fact, according to the national mental health charity, Mind1, people with mental illness are three times more likely to be a victim of crime than the general population, and only (usually in severe untreated psychotic illness) marginally more likely to commit crime.

In his book, ‘The Problem of Pain’, CS Lewis once wrote that:

‘Mental pain is less dramatic than physical pain, but it is more common and more hard to bear.  The frequent attempt to conceal mental pain increases the burden: it is easier to say “My tooth is aching” than “My heart is broken.”’2

As churches, we are getting better at addressing mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety.  We have often heard the statistic that ‘1 in 4’ people in the UK will struggle with this kind of mental health problem in any given year.  And so the conversation gets easier.  But only 1 in 100 has schizophrenia and 1 in 100 has bipolar disorder.  We know less about these illnesses, and we don’t know how to start talking about them.

This has consequences for sufferers.  Studies show that almost everyone with a severe mental illness has suffered from stigma.  I know that I have.  I would indeed rather say “My tooth is aching” than tell someone new that I have schizoaffective disorder.  I have definitely seen church members visibly recoil when I have shared my diagnosis.

Knowing some of the facts about severe mental illness, how differently would you approach someone in your congregation who is suffering?  Let me share a few examples of things that I think can be really helpful:

Be aware of us.  You may already be starting to wonder who in your congregation has such an illness.  Is it that lady who dresses a bit unusually and disappears before coffee time?  Is it that young person who is on the margins of the youth group and never seems to speak?  Or is it someone who seems to be totally normal and integrated one week but may not be able to make eye contact with anyone the next?  Remember that mental illness is by nature a hidden disability.  By getting to know people on the fringes of your congregation, you may meet someone with a desperate private struggle.

Let us tell our stories.  You can learn about schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and schizoaffective disorder from lots of great online resources or books (and that is a good place to start), but you will only truly begin to understand severe mental illness by hearing what day to day life is like for the person who is suffering.

Get alongside us.  If you realise that going to church services is hard for someone whose mood is extremely low or who is suffering from hallucinations, offer to sit with them at the back.  If it’s really too much, take them out for a coffee on Sunday afternoon or during the week instead.  Get to know their needs and see where you might be able to help – a lift to a hospital appointment, support with getting involved in a hobby group… There are lots of ways to show Jesus’s love, and you may find your life is just as enriched by a budding friendship as that of the person you are supporting.

Involve us.  Perhaps we are gifted musically: help us to join a praise group.  Perhaps we want to serve coffee: pair up with us.  Perhaps we are happy to stay on the margins but the fact that we hold on to faith in spite of adversity makes us a witness to others in the community: point that out.

Pray for us.  Life with a severe mental illness is often unstable, frightening and exhausting.  Sometimes we can’t pray for ourselves.  This is a simple way to help us as we journey.

Always think: What would Jesus do?  Remember that he gravitated to people whose illnesses made them ‘unclean’.  Leprosy and persistent menstrual bleeding were two of the most stigmatising conditions of his time, yet he met their victims with love and healing (Matthew 9, Luke 17).  

We may not see people healed from schizophrenia or bipolar disorder in the way that we might expect some people, in time, to recover from a depression (though nothing is impossible with God).  But we can shine Jesus’s light into their broken lives and help them to thrive as full members of the body of Christ.

“As it is, there are many parts, but one body.  The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’  On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable.”  (1 Corinthians 12:20-22)

  1. Mind. At risk, yet dismissed. https://www.mind.org.uk/about-us/our-policy-work/victims-of-crime/
  2. The Problem of Pain by CS Lewis © copyright CS Lewis Pte Ltd 1940.

Sharon Hastings is a medical doctor and writer whose clinical career was cut short by severe mental illness.  She is passionate about increasing understanding and hope around mental health issues while reducing misinformation and stigma – particularly within the church community. A lover of music, the sea and books, she lives with her husband, Rob, and their two golden retrievers in the seaside town of Newcastle, Northern Ireland.  

Sharon’s book, Wrestling with my Thoughts, published by IVP, is available to pre-order at: https://tinyurl.com/Wrestling-with-my-Thoughts

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