Roughly one in five children and teens in the U.S. experience sufficient functional impairment to meet the diagnostic criteria for at least one mental health disorder. Many in the church have had a difficult time wrapping their brains around how to serve kids who are functionally disabled in some environments but not others. The larger issue we need to overcome to fully welcome and embrace kids with mental illnesses and their families involves the assumptions that many in the church make when it comes to kids with emotional, behavioral or social challenges and their parents.
Have you ever heard people in the church share some of these assumptions about kids with mental health conditions and their families?
They diagnosed him with ________? (fill in the blank). That’s just an excuse.
If the parents weren’t so into themselves and took the time to discipline _____, there wouldn’t be a problem.
That’s a “made-up” condition. Back in our day, nobody needed medicine to do _____ in school.
They just want to get him labeled so they can take him somewhere and get him drugged.
It’s a sin problem.
Spare the rod and spoil the child.
How can we let them serve in an important role in ministry when they can’t even get their own kid under control?
Our beliefs and attitudes about the nature of mental illness have shaped the evolution of the disability ministry movement.
I would argue that our beliefs and attitudes about the nature of mental illness have been critical in shaping the evolution of the disability ministry movement. We’re far more likely to support the development of ministry outreach to those kids with disabilities when they (or their parents) are seen as bearing little or no moral responsibility for the presence of their disability. That’s why nearly all of our efforts have been directed to ministry with kids and families impacted by disability attributable to a clearly identified medical condition and kids and adults with sufficient intellectual impairment to be absolved of responsibility for their behavior.
Our attitudes about mental illness may be driving families out of the church and creating perceptions that persons with mental illness may not be welcomed at church.
Lack of Evangelism and Outreach
The tragedy is that families impacted by mental illness and trauma would appear to represent the ultimate “low-hanging fruit” for the church in the U.S. when it comes to evangelism and outreach. Literally hundreds of families who are unable to “do church” because of a child or teen struggling with impulse control, sensory processing, social communication or emotional self-regulation sit within a 5-10 minute radius of most congregations. Families who need to experience the love of Jesus. Families with gifts and talents to contribute to the Body of Christ. Families who may be welcomed and embraced without having to start “programs” requiring lots of money and lots of volunteers.
We have lots of work to do as a church when it comes to getting past ignorance before we’ll be effective in reaching the largest population of families impacted by kids with disabilities.