I recently met with Kristen Kansiewicz, a mental health professional who had done a survey of church attenders. Surprisingly, stigma was the second reason that people in the surveyed churches weren’t seeking mental health help. The number one reason? Denial.
In spite of the multitudes of support organizations, therapies, doctors, medications, and even churches that can help, people think they don’t need the help. It’s someone “over there” who needs all these great resources.
I get it. No one wants to think of themselves as dysfunctional. To admit you need mental health help feels a little like opening up the negative self-talk running through your head for all the world to see. And for people who don’t have to navigate life from a wheelchair, the mental image associated with the term special needs most definitely does not fit. Special needs seems like a suit that was tailored for someone else.
It’s Okay Not to Wear the Label
Even though the special needs label may not fit well, individuals with “lesser” disabilities or chronic conditions do have needs that are outside the range of normal. Behavior that’s consistently quirky or odd may very well be a diagnosable and treatable condition. If it’s quirky or odd in public, you can guarantee it’s even more so behind closed doors. Behavior is communication.
Growing up, my family had chronic visible needs like weak immune systems, allergies, asthma, and epilepsy. My father had an aortic aneurysm that nearly took his life when I was 18. Even with all of these physical and medical issues, we would never have categorized anyone in our family as disabled or special needs. We all went to work and school and functioned like everyone else.
But there were other chronic needs hidden and layered within the overt medical crises that were never addressed, except with anger and frustration. Phobias, life-limiting anxiety and enduring depression had an even greater impact than the physical conditions, yet in my growing up years, mental illness was a taboo topic, something whispered about and feared.
We were a family that could wear the chronic medical needs label, but what about mental illness, or trauma from the strain of so many illnesses? What about the possibility of high-functioning autism? No way. We were a churched family. We got up and went to work and school. We paid our bills, volunteered at church and in the community, took care of our home. We were a good family. Good families don’t have mental health issues. Right?
Right? Think again.
Make Sure You Get the Help You Need
The average time from the onset of mental illness symptoms to diagnosis is five to seven years. In countries with advanced medical systems, there are no other illnesses for which there are such lengthy delays in diagnosis and treatment solely because of denial.
Key Ministry and other organizations like us are working hard to make sure churches and other ministries become educated about the physical realities of mental health conditions, and are prepared to come alongside families who desire support. When churches recognize the difference between a spiritual crisis and a mental health crisis, the support and friendship can radically change a person’s view of their mental illness. Such support even has the opportunity to be instrumental in preventing suicides.
Get Out of Denial
Whether or not mental illness and high functioning autism are officially considered “special needs” and therefore eligible for “special ministry” within the Church is far less important to me than how people with these conditions are treated. Churches are beginning to understand and recognize that a person’s behaviors do not always reveal the whole picture. Sin is in the heart of every person, but it’s not the root cause of every behavior. The Church can be hugely helpful in creating shortcuts to mental health help, and treating all people with dignity and respect.
Too many people are accustomed to wearing camouflage—hiding their mental health needs—as an integral part of their social uniform. It’s not just other people, I’ve worn some camouflage, too. If this post is resonating with you, I encourage you to trade in your old and faded garb for some new attire. Many churches and church-based support groups offer significant help for mental health conditions; there’s no need to deal with this alone. Ditching the camouflage that covers your minimized mental illness might be the best wardrobe decision you ever make.
Mark you calendar: Wednesday, October 16, Key Ministry’s monthly Video Roundtable will feature a conversation with Kristen Kansiewicz, LMHC. Kristen is the founder of churchtherapy.com. Check back here for registration in mid-September.
Catherine Boyle is the Director of Mental Health Ministry for Key Ministry.