Sam Williams: Move Toward People with Mental Illness in your Church, Not Away from Them

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We all know people who are suffering with mental illness. Fewer of us know how to help them. How can you or your church serve those suffering from mental illness?

Few people are better qualified to answer this question than Sam Williams, Professor of Counseling at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. In this video, Sam Williams and Keith Whitfield address this topic and give you practical suggestions.

Here’s a transcript (edited for clarity):

What’s the church’s responsibility for those with mental illness in congregation?

“We have great responsibility to be like Jesus and to move toward people that are broken, lost, suffering, discouraged. Probably what’s most important for us is to recognize that we have the mentally ill in our congregations. There have been some studies done wherein they’ve looked at the incidence of mental illness inside and outside the church, and it doesn’t seem to matter whether it’s inside or outside. The incidence is somewhere around 20 to 25 percent per lifetime…

“If that’s the case, then it’s our job to realize that [the mentally ill] are people that God placed in our churches, in our context, for us to minister to and move toward.

“Unfortunately, one of the more common responses to somebody that’s really different is that we’re afraid. We want to move away from them. We either feel like they’re dangerous, or we don’t know what to say. But what’s most important is [that] we find a way to move toward and not away from [them].

“The second thing I would say about this is there’s a very interesting passage in Ecclesiastes 9:3:

The hearts of the children of man are full of evil, and madness [or insanity] is in their hearts while they live.

“Madness or insanity is in our hearts while we live, the Bible says. If that’s true, God is an equal opportunity diagnostician. In other words, on God’s terms, we’re all insane or mad. So there really is no ‘them’ and ‘us.’ Who’s crazier: the man who leaves his wife and three children for his secretary, or the guy that hears voices? Who’s more insane?

“So… in this category of mental illness, on God’s terms, we’re all broken. There’s something wrong with all of us. We’re all in the same boat.”

On God’s terms, we’re all broken.

Practically, what does it look like for us to move toward someone?

“That’s a great question. Some things we don’t understand. A person that’s looking off in the corner, you’ve heard that they hear voices or they’re doing something that’s really unusual — I think a starting place is to look for what you have in common. For instance, everybody wants to be cared for. Everybody eats. Everybody would like to go have a meal and sit down and have lunch together.

“I think we find things that are in common. Everybody has stressors that we all share. So with that person who’s so different, focus first on what you have in common with them. They probably drive a car. They probably have some of the same concerns about bills and politics as you do. So find common ground as a starting place.”

What kinds of counsel we should give people with mental illness?

“The most obvious emotional quality that characterizes Jesus in the Gospels is compassion. Compassion for people that are broken, lost, suffering, stuck in sin. It didn’t matter. He moved toward people that knew they were broken, lost and troubled.

“In moving toward people, we do so knowing that before the grace of God, before a holy God, we’re all in such need that we really are all brothers and sisters. We need one another.”

Jesus moved toward the broken, lost and troubled.

How should we think about medication?

“That’s a tough one, isn’t it? I often am asked, ‘My doctor recommended… this medication [or] antidepressant [or] some medicine for ADD. And my first answer to that medication question is, ‘I’m not sure.’

“When people ask that question, we need to be careful about giving a boatload of opinions that may not at all apply to them, their situation, their problem and their doctor. At the end of the day, it’s not my question to answer for somebody. It’s not yours to answer for the young man in your small group. It’s his physician’s recommendation. And it’s his responsibility to make an informed decision about what’s best for him. At the end of the day, the medication question is a wisdom question.

“Now, can we help someone process that decision? Of course. We can pray for wisdom. We can help and make sure they look into the side effects. If we have some reason to really question the recommendation, we can say, ‘It wouldn’t be wrong for you to get a second opinion.’

“But at the end of the day, the medication question is a wisdom question, and second it’s really not mine to answer. It’s up to that person who’s taking the medicine and the physician. So let’s pray they have great wisdom in making that decision.”

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The L. Russ Bush Center for Faith and Culture seeks to engage culture as salt and light, presenting the Christian faith and demonstrating its implications for all areas of human existence.

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