Kathryn Ives’ life was forever touched by mental illness more than 25 years ago when two of her four daughters were diagnosed as young adults with bipolar disorder.

Today, she’s thankful that one of those daughters, Jennifer—now 48 and a special education teacher—is complying with her medication and treatment and doing well. (The other daughter, Theresa, passed away 19 years ago from a health condition unrelated to her mental illness.)

“I’m just the mom who cheers them on … and prays,” Ives said.

As a member of the mental health team at Abiding Presence Lutheran Church in Burke, Va., Ives helps raise awareness of the prevalence of mental illness, works to erase the stigma and shame associated with it, and lets people with mental illnesses know they have a supportive home at church.

“We’re praying that God will direct our mental health team,” Ives said. “Some doors are opening. We’re learning, praying and growing.”

Ives wishes this type of ministry was available to support her when Jennifer was first diagnosed more than 20 years ago. “It hurts to see your child hurting,” she said. “As a mom, I have a desperate need to fix things. It’s always the hope that you can do something, and then you realize that you can’t.”

Jennifer and her older sister, Kate—a member of Lord of Life Lutheran Church in Fairfax, Va.—wrote a play to help people understand bipolar disorder (a brain disease defined by alternating periods of mania and depression) and other mental illnesses. “Let Me Tell You What It’s Really Like” stars the Ives sisters, and they’ve presented the play for their congregations, churches of other denominations and organizations in their area.

“It’s a lifelong struggle—not a daily struggle—dealing with up-and-down emotions and the fact that you can be depressed or manic for weeks and months.”

Jennifer plays herself, and Kate acts out the roles of family members, co-workers and friends. “It’s all about understanding, compassion and awareness,” said Kate, who has a theater background.

“Bipolar isn’t just mood swings or having a bad day,” Jennifer said. “It’s a lifelong struggle—not a daily struggle—dealing with up-and-down emotions and the fact that you can be depressed or manic for weeks and months.”

Kate added: “Our play is saying, ‘This is what I deal with; this is my life. Sometimes I need a little compassion and understanding to get through the day, just like you.’ ”

The mental health team at Abiding Presence was formed three years ago with the support of one of its pastors, Heidi Eickstadt, who was motivated to raise awareness by a history of mental illness in her family.

In addition to organizing the team, the congregation offers support groups, adult forums, speakers, conferences and special training on how to deal with people in crisis. It also honors the National Alliance on Mental Illness’ Mental Health Month every May.

“It’s a tough struggle,” Eickstadt said. “We have a long way to go in treating mental illness and learning more about the brain. But we have hope knowing that, with treatment, those who have mental illness can lead healthy and productive lives.”

Start the conversation

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, mental illnesses are among the most common health conditions and more than 50 percent of Americans will be affected by a mental illness or disorder at some point in life.

For several years, the ELCA has been growing in awareness of these statistics and has responded by partnering with outside organizations and supporting ministries. In 2012 it adopted the social message “The Body of Christ and Mental Illness,” which relates to its 2003 social statement on health care, “Caring for Health: A Shared Endeavor.”

“Requests for all of our social-teaching documents—policies, social statements, social messages—bubble up from the needs of people living their everyday lives,” said Roger Willer, ELCA director for theological ethics. “ ‘The Body of Christ and Mental Illness’ was no different.”

The statements and messages, he added, help pastors preach and teach the ELCA’s positions on these issues.

While some may teach that depression results from sin or a lack of faith, the ELCA delivers a different message. “We recognize that the suffering of caregivers and families is profound,” the social message reads. “Once mental illness has emerged, life will never be the same. The ELCA as a church commits to accompanying you as families and caregivers with honest, hopeful yet realistic, and prayerful companionship.”

“The message tells the whole story,” Willer said. “It talks about stigma, lament, blaming and shaming, isolation and what the church needs to be doing. It prepares clergy to better handle the issue. It gives us a clear public voice and acknowledges the need for different laws and policies. It gives a solid biblical and theological framework for all of that.”

More congregations are starting mental health ministries and forming support groups similar to the one at Abiding Presence, which Kathryn Ives said has strongly affected her life.

“When we share our stories, we can help other people.”

“The church has been a source of support because of the faiths and friendships,” she said. “The Bible studies have helped to increase my faith. I know I can call on people to pray for me. God is there and the people who love God are there. They pray for me in times of crisis. I can say, ‘Help! This is going on and I need prayer.’ The church has sustained us.”

Eickstadt said, “When we share our stories, we can help other people. Every church doesn’t have to do what we’re doing, but to have some ideas and a framework to start the conversation is at least a place to start.”

God’s beloved

The Lutheran message of forgiveness and grace is uniquely positioned to help meet mental health needs, said Mary Heller, a mental health therapist for 50 years and a member of St. John Evangelical Lutheran Church, Poughkeepsie, N.Y. “The church can remind people that there’s forgiveness and reconciliation in Christ,” she said. “It’s basically the Easter message.”

Aside from genetic and biological causes of depression, which are more complicated, Heller attributes much situational depression to people’s guilt over things they’ve done or failed to do. “Guilt gets carried around like a burden and often becomes obsessive,” she said. “People are wired to beat [themselves] up. Then it leads to depression and anxiety.

“Where the church comes in, is in helping people to understand that there’s forgiveness and absolution. Say you’re sorry and mean it. Fix it, if you can. Ask for God’s forgiveness and then the courage to accept the promise of God’s saving grace. Believe that absolution means one is relieved of the burden of guilt.”

This year the ELCA continued its commitment by designating $250,000 for grants to congregations, synods and affiliates to start local mental health ministries. Carol Josefowski, coordinator for ELCA disability ministries, oversaw the “Request for Proposals” process and hopes to award 25 grants of $10,000 each.

“There has been a lot of enthusiasm, and we received more than 50 applications,” she said. “The response has been encouraging.”

Community of care

One applicant, Cross Lutheran Church in Milwaukee, hopes to use the grant to fund psychological services at its Bread of Healing Clinic, a free, integrated health care clinic for low-income and underserved people. Cross co-founded the clinic in 2000 and hosts one of its three sites.

“Your soul can’t be full and at rest if you feel you have things in your head keeping you from living life fully.”

Matt Jandrisevits, a psychologist with Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin, is a member of Cross and director of the clinic’s mental health program, which was launched four years ago. He estimates that 800 patients receive mental health services from the clinic every year. The clinic screens all new patients for substance abuse concerns and provides services ranging from general lifestyle counseling to prescribing medication and helping manage it.

“The idea that the church can embrace the concept of companionship in this way is wonderful,” Jandrisevits said. “Mental health issues affect all of us. Fifty percent of us will have some mental health concerns at some point. The idea that we can have a ministry that will allow us to learn from each other is very comforting and empowering.

“The church offers an opportunity to provide a safe place to discuss mental health needs. It allows us to talk about it without stigma and judgment.”

Michelle Townsend de López, pastor of Cross, has a background in chaplaincy and knows the importance of a mind-body connection. She thinks the mental health program has made an impact on the congregation, enabling them to discuss overall wellness.

“We celebrated Mental Health Month,” she said. “We’re breaking the stigma that if you have mental health issues, you’re weak. Your soul can’t be full and at rest if you feel you have things in your head keeping you from living life fully.”

Jandrisevets agrees: “Therapy and treatment aren’t about healing illness. It’s about understanding the strength and soul of the individual in front of us, in us and in the space between us. In that moment, we’re in communion.”

Another applicant, the Northeastern Minnesota Synod, expanded its youth ministry to include mental health awareness after each of its five conferences experienced the death of a young person by suicide. “Some of the kids who died were church members,” said Catherine Anderson, the synod’s coordinator of youth ministry.

During her 19 years in this role, Anderson has seen anxiety and depression increase in young people. “It’s a spectrum of answers for that,” she said. “There is no simple answer to why anxiety has increased. Busy schedules, expectations, social media and the culture in which youth live are contributing factors. But they are not the whole story. Mental illness is complex.”

The synod sponsored a daylong conference on this topic last fall, drawing 80 youth leaders from more than 50 of its 132 congregations. Following requests for resources, Anderson said, the synod is putting together story kits to address four topics: anxiety, depression, suicide and mental well-being. “We can’t fix it,” she added, “but we can start having conversations about it.”

The story kits will be used during youth group gatherings, Sunday school and retreats, and will be available on the synod website. Anderson is also planning to offer more workshops and a podcast on topics related to youth and mental illness.

“As I’ve seen the issues grow, it’s been in the back of my mind to do this,” Anderson said. “Now is the time.”

Back at Abiding Presence, Eickstadt said she thinks the Lutheran church is the perfect place for people to share their stories of how mental health has affected them, either because of their own diagnosis or that of a loved one. “It’s all tied up in the idea of the cross, transformation and God’s redemptive power—especially the cross as a symbol of death turned into a symbol of hope, power and grace,” she said.

“The Body of Christ and Mental Illness” acknowledges that coping with mental illness or caring for someone who is mentally ill can be stressful and upsetting, yet it offers hope and commits the church to companionship with those affected.

As Kate explained, she and her sister wanted to show that range of emotion in their play. “It’s OK to get mad,” she said. “ It’s OK to be frustrated. Growing up with siblings with bipolar was hard; they were the focus of the family.”

But the good news, she said, is that there’s life with bipolar disorder. “You can function and have a meaningful life,” she said. “That is one of the wonderful things Jennifer brings to the table. Look at this wonderful, vibrant person leading a good life.”


Wendy Healy
Healy is a freelance writer and member of Trinity Lutheran Church, Brewster, N.Y. She served as communications director for Lutheran Disaster Response of New York following the 9/11 attacks.

Read more about: