My mother has seen multiple psychiatrists, counselors, and other mental-health professionals. She has seen the inside of more than one mental-health hospital, one jail, and one prison. Her history with serious mental illness goes back more than 20 years. But if she were to go to a hospital today, in urgent need of psychiatric intervention, she would most likely start from scratch with a team of professionals who have no idea what medications she takes, what she suffers from, or what she needs.
She might be medicated, stabilized, and after a few days, discharged into the care of a family barely able to care for her, even after decades of practice.
Every time her insurance company has made a change, a doctor moved, or the person she last saw wasn’t available, she has had to meet with someone new and start over.
She needs to take medications every day, but until recently, no professional had explained–in a way she understood–that she has a chronic illness and must take meds for the rest of her life, for the sake of herself and others.
Under intensive treatment, she usually has been paranoid and unwilling or unable to consent for caregivers to consult with family. So we have written letters explaining her history and behavior and mailed them to these professionals, hoping she would get better care–even though the recipients could never acknowledge receiving any communication from us.
When she went missing and lived in homeless shelters, we couldn’t find her. No one would answer our inquiries.
When she went to prison, I couldn’t visit because she was required to initiate a multi-step process of obtaining approval for each visitor–and it was much too difficult for her.
Although we suspected for a long time that she suffered from schizophrenia, it took 20 years for us to receive professional confirmation of her diagnosis, from a medical field that is reluctant to “label” people.
This is the reality of life for so many families like ours, trying to navigate a mental health care system that is badly broken. And there are so many ways the church can help.
My family has always been in the church. Dad was a pastor for 10 years. When schizophrenia came knocking, we were steeped in church life, yet the church was mostly silent on the reality of mental illness–and we got the message that we should be silent as well. This silence was isolating and cruel.
Yet our greatest moments of hope have come through encounters with individuals in the church who have made eye contact, visited Mom in prison, answered late-night phone calls to help her sort through her thoughts, showed up for small group when Dad cried every week. These are simple acts of love that reflect the heart of our creator, who knows far more than we do about how wretched we all are.
Like it or not, the church is the first place many turn in crisis. And fair or not, the church’s silence or rejection feels like rejection from God. We cannot keep turning away from the most vulnerable among us. It’s time to be part of the solution.
Amy Simpson is editor of Christianity Today’s Gifted for Leadership, a freelance writer, and author of Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission (InterVarsity Press). You can find her at www.AmySimpsonOnline.com and on Twitter @aresimpson.