Have a little faith

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.

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10 Responses to Have a little faith

  1. Linda says:

    When my daughter was in first grade her CCD teacher, an educated(?) public school teacher, told me that I would have to come to the class and be there or my child could not attend CCD. My daughter has a trauma history, and having been in foster care does not trust adults who raise their voices at children. I was so upset that I spent the next 5 years teaching CCD , at that same church, for the kids people thought shouldn’t even be there. May that teacher some day know the value of the gift she gave me when she rejected the imperfection of those children.

  2. Nancy says:

    Mother Teresa said “I know God will not give me anything I can’t handle. I just wish He didn’t trust me so much.” It would seem even she knew that when challenges pile up, these words do not offer comfort. I agree with you, Lisa, that what parents want is understanding and acceptance for their children and themselves. After a long absence, I feel fortunate to have found a very understanding and compassionate faith community. Also, I am encouraged, because I am hearing more and more stories of people who are finding churches where they feel they belong.

  3. Amy Guilford says:

    I have found my church to be very supportive. The children have small groups based on age and as the child ages, moves to the next class. Each time my son has moved up, the teachers have come to me to ask if there is anything that works or doesn’t work and how they can support them the best they can. I give them some feedback and let them know that I am available if they need to talk more. My son hasn’t complained and the teacher’s haven’t needed to ask for more help. The church makes a point of accepting each person for where they are. The bishop of our church has a child with downs syndrome. He definitely knows how it is to have a child that does not act like everyone else. He knows that kids grow in different ways but that they can achieve alot if given the chance. There are also 4 other families out of 100 that have at least one child with ASD. They also have felt supportive. We also are a church that serves others. My son is encouraged to help at the soup kitchen so he can experience helping others. He gets it. I’m sorry that others haven’t had such a good experience. My son used to go to a Catholic church with his father but we couldn’t see him in CCD so he began gong with me. Great choice. He is learning right from wrong but also of how he can fit in with normal kids and also let others kids know that not everyone is the same. If they don’t understand my son, they can take it up with God, because God made my son the way he is for a reason. People are too quick to judge. At church, people do a great job of keeping judgement to a minimum. Would Jesus cast out a child because they are different? No. so we shouldn’t either.

  4. Marie says:

    Church… it always made me think of the strong perfume, kneel, sit, stand, shake, listen (count the windows) gossip and grouchiness. How could I bring my child into this sensory stressor environment. My son was 4 last time we went- we did ok, but only because he was coloring downstairs in the daycare, and only if there was this one particular mother of grown children. Now he is 13, and I really needed a community. Isolation is no stranger to us right? I went to a small church nearby and spoke with the pastor. I explained our situation and his Asperger’s anxiety, impulsiveness and examples of what could come out of his mouth. The Pastor encouraged me to give it a try, he was welcome to bring a hand held game or whatever he needed. The service had 50 folks on a good day and there were a couple of people with grandchildren on the spectrum.
    Here we are now 5 months in, and we are in love with the church and community. He loves to go, and his very polite and well behaved. No one could be more surprised than me. I haven’t ventured into CCD. He has a 1:1 at his Therapeutic school, so I certainly wouldn’t leave him at CCD. He did however have his first Youth Group night (2 hours) and did very well.
    We are both so proud and happy about this HUGE step.
    Folks are really kind to him and really kind when asking questions. u
    He hasn’t needed any ‘diversions’ either ! The first 20 minutes is basically singing, which he loves and during the sermon etc. I found giving him pressure keeps him from twitching etc. I squeeze his arm, hand, pressure up his spine and it keeps him focused.

    I absolutely know what being ostracized is like in many parts of the community we try to join into, even family. I am so grateful for our little church.

  5. Mark Zanger says:

    I meet people with both kinds of experience: church families that are their best and frequent support, and churches where caregivers felt shamed by their children or the congregation’s reaction. The matter is complicated by our own reactions to the catastrophe of mental illness in the family. This trauma can bring one closer to eternal things, or it can make us “angry with God” as some call it. A loss of religious habit is associated with trauma in soldiers and others, and yet when I talk to other family members their personal resort is very often prayer and meditation, and sometimes spirituality different than they grew up on. I’m Jewish and often get support in al-anon, a non-sectarian but spiritual movement founded by conservative Christians. (I know agnostics in al-anon, and have discussed with them how they view a higher power, so it really is open to everyone, but this is about what we do and find.) It is an additional problem to go through crises of faith with youth who are struggling with mental illness, they can be as angry at God as they are at us! Or they can be hyperreligious in a way we want to respect but don’t entirely go along with. Recently I have been meeting people, primarily in communities of color, who are starting faith-based support groups around mental illness, and some denominations in some places have always been concerned about youth with special needs or issues. But, yes, my son was encouraged to leave Hebrew School when he couldn’t cooperate, and we changed congregations to indulge another child.

  6. moira says:

    We left several faith communities, mostly from our feeling how different we were from the other families. The main barrier arose NOT so much from how my children were treated for being “different” because of their mental health/behavioral challenges but from how they were NOT acknowledged as connected to adults of power/prestige within the church or the community at large. The main pressure from the church was for me as the mom to prevent them from being “groundless;” why was I not encouraging their father to resume his patriarchal, (blessed) role as spiritual head of household, so that I and my children had “covering” and status. …if only I exuded the true love of Jesus, if only I spoke in tongues, if only I modeled perfect forgiveness to my children so
    that we were a united front welcoming him back to be the loving, spiritually guided father he (like all males, right?!) had the “potential” to be…. nothing was ever said about how to continue
    involving someone who had no interest in addressing his own challenges, demons, lack of integrity as the chameleon who was one way in public and something quite else in private. Finding a scapegoat is as old as Adam and Eve, and yet we are wired to be social beings– so
    when we found parenting support groups and also, as a single-parent family ways to be creative collectively and individually within artistic outlets, we were much better off. The rushing for church was never missed, either, and was replaced by Sun am walks together and/or swimming or something physically rewarding. We’ve replaced the human need for worship with certain isolated spiritual practices– a solstice program here, meditation practices there, certain discussion groups that bond folks more naturally, by interests and passions that are not the judgmental, dogmatic practices of that “only one way to God….”

  7. Traci says:

    Currently I am attending a very small store front church inside an old factory building. As a family we feel very connected and have made wonderful friendships that will probably last a lifetime. My child’s Sunday school teacher is very positive and encouraging and is a great support for me. I have seen some wonderful growth in my child since we started attending. My church family has always been my support…faithfully.

  8. Denis Hirschhorn says:

    My current church is very supportive. We have several members in our congregation who have medical, behavioral, or mental health issues and they are accepted as well as loved as part of our community.

    To provide a little more background information, some of the issues that members of our community deal with include post traumatic stress disorder, fibromyalgia, Phenylketonuria, and one member was recently diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome.

    In our church behavioral issues are not simply dismissed as a medical condition, nor are people left behind if it is indeed a medical condition that is part of the situation. Instead there is a healthy balance of recognizing behavioral issues as a genuine problem while simultaneously recognizing that those who have them have the same need of Christ’s love as anyone else.

    Not every church I have attended has been this way though. The first church I attended did not have the training or understanding necessary to minister to people with these needs. From what I saw over a period of a couple of years, those who had these needs were left behind, myself included.

    In conclusion, I do believe that a church which has a solid understanding of God’s word and is capable of demonstrating Christ’s love is a good place to receive support for parents of children with these needs as well as individuals such as myself who have these needs. Not every church is like this however and finding one may prove to be a difficult experience.

  9. Tracy says:

    Our boys have the support in our church. Our boys are helped by their church peers, guided and helped by their group leaders, and my husband and I are supported by our friends and leaders as well. We have one son who stays with us in the adult classes even though he is 11. We are not judged. Our 11 year old usually sleeps on the pew (his anxiety gets high in groups) but if he is awake he is welcome to join in the discussion and is able to understand most scriptural discussions. He is a bright child who doesn’t miss much. He is accepted by others his age as they also have issues of anxiety, ODD, and bipolar. Some of the boys in the Scouting have family issues that are helped by each of the boys supporting each other emotionally and strengthened through their being taught the love of the Savior and how they need to treat others. Our 14 year old has social issues and is being helped by his peers by kindly guiding him and not being mocked. He feels the love that he needs. There are some of his peers who have the same issues or others who have other issues who are learning to deal with real life. But all in all, both of our boys know that at church, the bullying, teasing, and such is a minimum and is handled immediately in a loving manner. And the leaders and parents are not judging. Many of us parents in our church are dealing with the same or similar issues if not more major issues. How thankful I am.

  10. Ann says:

    The CCD teacher at our church had two children with autism. He had no patience left over for my son. At the time, I was burnt out and this was just one more place my son was unsuccessful, we left the church. I do not judge, I pray at home. When I die, my God will find me a great seat in heaven! That’s what everyone tells me anyway! :)