Online Ministry: Bringing Relational Healing For Those With Mental Health Struggles
Mental health for me often feels like a rabbit hole of a topic. How mental health is medically classified confuses me, how people get diagnosed is not clear, and treatment can be messy. Mental health illnesses are positioned as disorders and not diseases. Diseases are biologically identifiable while disorders are a disruption of an existing illness. The grey of mental health disorders is most of the symptoms are behavioral and have very little biological evidence.
Diagnosing people who are mentally ill involves getting a physical exam with lab tests. The results of the tests allow doctors to cross out underlining issues like a tumor, undiagnosed disease, or alcohol and drug use. After the doctors rule out biological disruptions then you'll be sent to get a psychological evaluation, and may be diagnosed with a mental disorder. The tough part for doctors is labeling behavioral problems as being a result of an unhealthy brain without specific biological evidence. Often people with mental health struggles are diagnosed with multiple disorders which have overlapping symptoms with different treatment plans. The last few years the field of mental health has grown greatly with diagnosing becoming easier, treatment plans simpler and biological breakthroughs happening regularly. It feels like mental health is leaving the Middle Ages and entering into a Renaissance period.
Recent findings are suggesting many mental disorders can be linked to less activity in parts of the brain and specific parts of the brain as being reduced in size. The findings are limited to case studies and not definitive at the moment. The brain consists of a billion neurons and a trillion synapses. Needless to say, it’s the most complex organ in our body. It appears people with mental illness have fewer neurons and active synapses in certain regions of the brain. Treatment plans often use different types of medication to stimulate inactive parts of the brain. Think about the use of Electroconvulsive therapy and the goal to ignite dormant parts of the brain by shocking a persons' neurons and synapse connections. I'm oversimplifying the discoveries and gaps in the findings, but its important to understand there are biological issues scientists are learning and breakthroughs are coming in the near future. My prayer is mental health will be more understood as a disease and not a disorder and be more rooted in facts and less in evaluations.
I will confess most of the difficulty with this process and topic overall is because I’ve grown up around family members with mental health burdens. The personal trigger of mental illness does murky the water for me at times. I’ve seen people be mistreated, misrepresented, and misdiagnosed. I know how mental illness can cause interpersonal issues that often are far greater than anything biological and behavioral in the brain.
We need others. Our first loss at the beginning of time wasn't an item or title, but communion with God. The disconnection with the Creator led to connection issues locally. Poke around the first few chapters of Genesis and things go from great to ugly pretty quick. The message of Christ was of restoration with the Maker, but as well with others. The majority of Paul's letters in the New Testament were focused on making sure followers got along with the group. Life is simple when you are by yourself. It's not a good life being alone, but the rules make sense. Don't tick yourself off. Now, introduce a second party with the freedom to divert from the plan and chaos can erupt anytime. Strap on some new shoes and imagine trying to figure out others with an unhealthy brain. Making and keeping friends takes a great amount of nuance at times. Subtle mental struggles can cause inconsistency in thoughts and those skewed thoughts cause a great amount of disconnection with others.
I've found this is where online ministry can provide healing. I’ve noticed over the years many people who've been marginalized in local churches start a process of healing by attending online. Unfortunately, mental health stigma issues still exist. The marginalization of those mentally ill is abundantly true when exploring the more rural parts of the world. For a long time places like asylums were not spots of restoration, but a permanent state for those who were sick. They were often on the outer edges of town and out of sight and mind. In the 1600s you had locations like Bethlem Royal Hospital allowing public visitations like a little house of horrors. Jump to today, and the stigma is amplified when haunted houses, horror films, and national media outlets often characterized those who are mentally ill as being violent. The fact is only 3-5% of those who are mentally ill are violent. People with mental health disorders are more likely to be victims than an offender. I've personally seen that to be true with my family members. It's easy to take advantage of someone who has an unhealthy brain. It's not too different than the childhood bully who grew a few extra inches and uses the size to their advantage.
The church itself has done some great things to reach out to those sick, but often the positives don't outdo the wrongs. For a long time, those struggling with mental illness were not diagnosed with a disorder but seen as being demon possessed and the reason for the possession being their fault. Matthew S. Standard unpacks this topic in "Grace For The Afflicted: A Clinical and Biblical Perspective on Mental Illness" that Scripture only has five instances where people are sick (loss of sight or use of legs) from demonic influence and only three moments of people being demon possessed and losing all control of mental faculties. Out of thirty-one encounters of healing in Scripture, over a timeline of about forty-five years, you have only three recorded moments of people having a mental illness like symptom from demon possession.
The number of occurrences in the Bible didn't matter and those struggling with mental health burdens were painted as being demonically influenced. Again, strap on those shoes of having an unhealthy brain and now being culturally labeled as being possessed by Satan. Do you think it would be easy to build friendships nearby and engage with the local church? The answer is obviously no, but I believe you and I can make this response a yes. We can offer eternal hope through Jesus and relational hope with inviting them to join our community. I love how Dr. Xavier Amador talks about building relationships with those with mental illness in his book "I Am Not Sick, I Don't Need Help! How to Help Someone with Mental Illness Accept Treatment" as taking a L.E.A.P. with people.
Listen to those who are struggling with mental health issues. Less mouth and more ears.
Empathy for those struggling with an unhealthy brain. Get into their situation and better understand what they are experiencing. Less sympathy and more empathy.
Agree that their situation is not ideal and honestly sucks. Don't fight them, but align with their point of view. Apologize for your lack of understanding, acknowledge you don't know everything, and sometimes agree to disagree on certain topics. Less conflict and more comfort.
Partner on solutions and work towards healthy habits and treatment plans. Less "your problem" and more "our solution".
What Can Your Online Ministry Do To Engage Those Who Struggle With Mental Health Issues?
Break the stigma by talking about mental health topics to the crowd, but also train your volunteers on how to engage those with mental health disorders. Dr. Xavier Amador's book is a great resource!
Grow in your knowledge of mental health by reading books, deep diving on YouTube, attending conferences, and listen to podcasts.
Find out about local mental health resources locally and globally. Learn where to point people asking for help and educate your team as well.
How To Help Those With Mental Health Disorders?
Encourage them to talk with a doctor and if they disagree with the advice then say to get a second opinion. What type of doctor? I would suggest starting with a general practitioner. Request for a physical.
Explore community comfort through support groups, counseling, online groups, and/or general small group offerings.
Emphasize the importance of healthy habits like sleeping a full eight hours, eating healthy, avoiding large amounts of caffeine, and staying away from stressful environments and relationships. I like the example of the teenager that can eat fast food, sleep five hours, and drink soda all day while still being in good shape. Their body still has that fresh car smell, but once they hit their thirties and forties habits will need to change. People struggling with mental health disorders don't have the luxury to pollute their daily routines like a teenager but have to regulate a bit more. It's not fair but can bring about healthier outcomes.
Endorse what the experts have suggested by asking questions like "What does your doctor think about that?" or "When was the last time you talked with your doctor about this?." A reminder to remember L.E.A.P. when bringing up the topic.
Any Last Tips?
When someone is in crisis, I have a general rule with my online community to encourage them to find local support. Regrettably, there aren’t always great nearby resources easy to locate. The best way to help a person find an expert is to contact the largest churches in their area and ask if they have a recommended list of counselors. Many churches keep a vetted list on hand and are more aware of government resources.
Lastly, I would sign up for the email list over on hope4mentalhealth.com and attend their monthly events for the most up to date information.
I want to end by thanking you for caring about those who carry the burden of being mentally unhealthy. Thank you for spending some time to grow in your understanding and exploring what it means to be better equipped to support people in this area. Know your online ministry is a first step for many people to re-engage with God and others in a healthy way.
I'm personally grateful for your willingness and ministry!