When my son was in elementary school, we decided to go back to church. We had belonged to a church when he and his brother were very small. I taught Sunday school, mostly for preschoolers, so I could keep an eye on him. We were part of a small but vibrant church community and we valued that. Then he took a nosedive into a series of mental health crises. Getting anywhere was a challenge and church fell by the wayside.
We moved back to Massachusetts and decided to try church again. We asked around and chose a church with a reputation for being welcoming and accepting. My sons began Sunday school and I looked forward to an hour each week when I could be part of a supportive community. It went pretty well the first week. By the third week, the Sunday school teachers were coming to find me and ask if I could come help them. My son had a hard time sitting still, they said, or focusing. He seemed extremely fearful some of the time and “wired” at other times. They simply had no idea what to do and felt pretty frustrated with him when their strategies didn’t work. Welcome to my world, I thought to myself. We lasted only a few weeks longer.
A study published in June 2011 by Baylor University examined the relationship between mental illness and family stressors, strengths and faith practices among nearly 5,900 adults in 24 churches. The study found that mental illness in a family member can destroy the family’s connection with their religious community and many affected families leave the church and their faith behind. The results found that 27 percent had mental illness in their families, with those families reporting double the number of stressors, such as financial strain and problems balancing work and family. In addition, those families said support and assistance was very important to them, while their congregations seemed to overlook this need entirely.
I have continued to hear stories from families about the disconnect between what they hope for from their churches, synagogues and other faith communities and what they actually receive. Some have been advised to discipline more, to love more, to seek a therapist (most already have) and to be patient. Many are told that “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle.” Most parents, however, are not looking for advice. They are looking for support, acceptance and a place to belong.
A few years after I had stopped attending church with my sons, I was running a support group for parents like me. While some had managed to stay connected with their religion, many more had had negative experiences. One mom came week after week and described how she was trying to get her daughter confirmed (they attended Catholic church) and how it was very important to her. She had made a hurculean effort to bring her daughter to class consistently. She had coached her, steadied her and intervened for her. At the end of the confirmation classes, her daughter was required to attend a weekend retreat. The church staff said they absolutely could not oversee or administer medication and she knew her daughter couldn’t go without her meds. At first, they wouldn’t allow her to drive out with the medications and all seemed lost. She pushed, she insisted and ultimately was allowed to drive out each morning and evening to bring the medications. Her daughter made it through the weekend and successfully completed the retreat. But she had to fight to make that happen.
We’ve made strides in ensuring that children and youth with mental health needs are included in school activites and community events. Parents find the one cub scout pack that welcomes boys with ADHD or the only pottery class that is fine with anxious girls. However, many simply walk away from the religious community they grew up in when they find their children are not accepted and they feel judged as parents.
Parents whose children have mental health needs want and deserve supporting, accepting and welcoming religious communities. Here in Massachusetts, we have made a committment to providing treatment and services in the community whenever possible. We encourage wraparound teams to identify and seek out natural supports and churches, synagogues and mosques are often used as examples. But most places of worship need training and education for their staff and volunteers, who often hold the same stereotypes as others who don’t have a family member with mental health needs. With a better understanding of how they can help and concrete steps to make it possible for families to be part of a faith community, the connections can be strengthened and renewed.