Spirituality & Formation

What my mental health patients taught me about spiritual formation

I’m not proud to admit that I was nervous the first time I began visiting patients on the psychiatric floor of my hospital. While I strongly believed that I needed to make all people feel welcomed, loved and embraced by God, I feared that as an inexperienced chaplain I would not be able to do it well. Yet, as I spent weeks listening to stories from those who struggled from schizophrenia, bipolar disorders, drug addiction issues and serve psychotic disorders, I found myself being transformed by my patients who embraced me when I struggled to embrace them.

Since I graduated from San Francisco Theological Seminary in May and began my year-long clinical pastoral education residency at Bon Secours Maryview Hospital in Portsmouth, Virginia, I’ve found myself learning about how others see God differently than expressed in my theology lectures. Instead of learning about how John Calvin, Karl Barth and Reinhold Niebuhr saw God, I’m learning how those who are locked away on an isolated hospital floor in Portsmouth, Virginia see God.

“For me, I don’t see God as the one who loves me as a patient with schizophrenia. Rather, I see God as the one who loves me as his own son,” a patient once said to me.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 26.2 percent of Americans 18 years or older suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year. Yet despite the roughly 57.7 million of Americans who suffer from mental health issues, many find themselves not able to talk with those in their spiritual communities about their mental health diagnosis out of a fear of feeling excluded.

One patient, who I will call Karen, expressed how she feels many churches haven’t done well in providing a welcoming space for those who struggle with mental health issues, causing many to keep quiet if they have been diagnosed with one. In fact, Karen found herself leaving a church where she had been a member for decades after she was admitted to the hospital following a suicide attempt.

“What really hurt me was knowing the same pastor who baptized my children was visiting other patients in the same hospital but didn’t visit me on the psychiatric floor,” she said. “The church forgets that Jesus didn’t just reach out to those who had a physical illness, but Jesus also reached out to those of us who have mental illnesses.”

In recent months, a lot of attention has been placed on the relationship between mental health and spiritual care, particularly following the death of Matthew Warren, the son of well-known evangelist Rick Warren. The death of Matthew Warren has shed light on the need for spiritual communities to provide spiritual care to those diagnosed with mental health issues. In fact, according to a poll conducted by the Lifeway Research and published by the Huffington Post, 54 percent of Americans believe the church should do more to prevent suicides.

Working as a resident chaplain in a psychiatric department of a hospital has allowed me to see the desperate need for spirituality communities and the church to provide spiritual care to those who are dealing with mental health issues. Like many, I believe the church cannot hesitate in providing spiritual care to these individuals any longer when every American either is or knows someone whose dealing with a mental health issue.

But more importantly, through my residency I have come to see a need for the church not just to be welcoming, but to be inviting to those struggling with mental health issues. And while I did not know how to do this when I first began working with psychiatric patients, it was seeing how welcoming and compassionate my patients were towards me despite the hesitance and nervousness I had towards them as their inexperienced and nervous chaplain. Their willingness to share their stories – of not only their pain but also their dreams – allowed me to see how they recognized me as a spiritual friend. And while I found myself looking for someone to model how Jesus provided spiritual care to those with mental illnesses, I learned it wasn’t something I was going to learn from a how-to book or another chaplain. It was something that I was going to learn from my patients.

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