Sunday, May 17, 2015

Making Room for People Struggling With Mental Illness

UPDATE, Feb. 6/17: Vince Li is seeking an absolute discharge so he can live freely in the community. The question asked two years ago is still germane today.

Vince Li, who was found not criminally responsible for the beheading death of Tim McLean on a greyhound bus in 2008, has been given the OK to to be transferred to a group home in Winnipeg. Some are outraged, but many people are fine with it—Li, who has schizophrenia, has experienced “profound improvement” to his mental health and has been judged ready to be integrated back into the community. But I wonder: What would happen if Li decided to attend a Winnipeg church as part of his recovery? Would he be welcome? I explored the subject in my Free Press column earlier this year.

Do people with mental health challenges feel welcome at your place of worship?

The question is prompted by the recent decision to give Vince Li day passes from the Selkirk Mental Health Centre.
Many people are familiar with Li, who was found not criminally responsible for beheading Tim McLean on Greyhound bus in 2008.
Li, who has been diagnosed with schizophrenia, has described himself as a devout Christian.

“I believe in Jesus Christ. He is my Saviour,” he said. “I try to follow God.”

For someone like Li, who is seeking to return to a normal and productive life, finding a church home would provide a supportive and caring community.

But are churches ready to help someone like him, or anyone else struggling with a mental health challenge? A 2014 study by Lifeway Research in the U.S. suggests the answer is no.

The study of 1,000 Protestant pastors found that they and their churches are unprepared to deal with people experiencing mental health challenges.

According to the study, 66 percent of pastors seldom speak to their congregation about mental illness, only 27 percent of churches have a plan to assist families affected by mental illness, and only 14 percent have someone on staff who is skilled to deal with it.

According to Ed Stetzer, executive director of LifeWay Research, “pastors need more guidance and preparation for dealing with mental health crises. They often don't have a plan to help individuals or families affected by mental illness, and miss opportunities to be the church."

For James Friesen, CEO of Eden Mental Health Centre in Winkler, offering help to people with mental illness is the right thing for churches to do.

“The church has a higher calling to show forgiveness, grace and love,” to people who struggle with mental health challenges, he says.

“For Christians, those things should be at the front ends of our hearts.”

And how can churches assist people with mental health challenges?

“Listen,” says Friesen, noting that people with mental illness say they just want to be treated as normal. “They tell me, ‘help us find a place to live, a job, friends.’ That is 90 percent of what people ask for.”

Education is also important, says Ron Falk, who directs spiritual care at Eden and who visits churches to help them respond to people facing mental health issues.

“Churches need to learn about mental illness, how to support people and their families,” he says.

As for Vince Li, his was an extreme case; even so, mental health experts say he poses a low risk of reoffending. He has been described as a model patient who is humble and remorseful for what he did—and determined to stay on his schizophrenia medication.

It is estimated that one out of every four or five Canadians who will face a mental health issue in their lifetime. This means people who are struggling are in every congregation. 

Since the heart of the Christian message is forgiveness, new life and restoration to the community, your church has an opportunity to help people experiencing mental health challenges right now.

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