Simpson: Redemption Found in Telling Story of Mother’s Illness, Impact on Family

CHICAGO, IL (November 10, 2014) — Amy Simpson is the editor of Christianity Today’s GiftedForLeadership.com, senior editor of Leadership Journal, and author of the award-winning book Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church. Her mother experiences severe schizophrenia and has been hospitalized multiple times, generally when she has stopped taking her medications. Simpson spoke Saturday at North Park University’s daylong symposium “Being Present: A Faithful Response to Mental Illness,” which attracted 250 people. News editor Stan Friedman spoke with Simpson prior to the event.

Do you think we might be turning the corner in helping the church understand mental illness as well as helping those who have it and their families?
I think there is movement. If we’re not turning a corner then we’re approaching it. That people are talking about mental illness and holding these events where people are able to come and talk about their lives is huge. So I’m encouraged about what’s happening. But still there is a lot of work to do.

When I look at polls, I’m stunned to see how many people still think mental illness can be healed by prayer alone.
Yeah, it’s discouraging and frustrating to see. I think it’s important things for people to realize that this isn’t only a problem within a church, nor is it fundamentally a Christian belief. These beliefs find their roots outside the church.

All of these things that still permeate our culture—like the concept that you can catch mental illness from someone else—are ancient ideas and they’re pagan ideas, so when we perpetuate those concepts, what we’re really doing is clinging to ideas that have no basis in the Christian faith.

But they’re so destructive to faith. When someone is discouraged from seeking more treatment and told they need to have more faith—which is a completely indefinable prescription—or to pray away their illness, and it doesn’t work, it’s often not long from that point where they begin to give up on their faith and the church.

As a person with a bipolar disorder, I tell people that mental illness can be harder on the family than it is on the one who is sick because that person may not even realize they are ill.
The impact my mom’s illness has had on her, on me, her family, and the society she lives in has been huge. Now I’m not going to say it’s worse for families because I don’t have a serious mental illness, so I don’t know what it’s like to struggle with that. I can say it can be very difficult for families to live with someone who has a mental illness, especially a severe one. But even the so-called less serious mental illness has an impact on the family and can create a family crisis.

There becomes a resource monopoly—where the person who has the illness consumes most of the resources in the family, financially, emotionally, and time-wise. Everything becomes about helping that person and sometimes managing them, making sure they don’t get upset or that they’re taking their medication. All the family members have an investment in that, but a lot of times other people in the family—especially kids—lose out.

Unfortunately, family members also are sort of viewed by others as if they’re infected somehow and people become afraid of them. People think, “I don’t know what to do with mental illness, I don’t know how to help a family.” So they stay away.

That’s kind of odd because we don’t have that same kind of reaction to other types of illness. If we’re talking about a family with a member who has cancer, my first thought would not be, I need to find a way to cure that cancer or to heal that cancer for the person so the family doesn’t suffer.

But with mental illness for some reason we think we need to do that, but then we throw up our hands because we don’t know how.

What can people do to help?
We are qualified to be friends with people. Every single one of us is qualified to do that. We’re all qualified to help families in the same way we would help other families in crisis. We know how to give meals to people who need them. Mental illness is the non-casserole illness. People will bring casseroles to a family if someone has cancer, but people don’t bring casseroles to a family in which someone has been hospitalized for a mental illness.

We know how to give rides to kids. We know how to help financially. Medication can be tremendously expensive. Hospitalization can be tremendously expensive. There are all these practical things we can do, but most of the time it doesn’t happen with families where there’s mental illness.

One of the things that is important for everyone to know is that family members might go through the grieving process over and over and over again because it can be like losing a loved one repeatedly. When their medication doesn’t work anymore, when they stop taking their meds, or some life event triggers their illness, there is a loss there, and family members feel it keenly. So it’s allowing them to grieve that process—maybe over and over again.

Just staying in people’s lives and not walking away from them is huge. I think how powerful that would have been in my life and my family’s life if people would have just stuck by us, if it had been okay for us just to talk with somebody about what we were feeling and experiencing, if it had not felt weird to walk into church on a Sunday morning.

What did you think when people weren’t there for you?
We are just afraid of mental illness, so we walk away from people. It sends the message that our faith isn’t big enough to handle this, that God isn’t big enough to handle this, and because we are Christ’s representatives on earth, people can get the message that God doesn’t care.

How can we walk with siblings of someone with mental illness during youth group, Sunday school, or children’s ministry? How can we help them voice what they’re feeling when they might not even be able to do that in their own family?

I think it’s important to remember that the siblings might not be getting what they need emotionally at home. It’s not because the parents are withholding it, but it is that resource monopoly where they’re giving so much to their sibling’s illness. So take the time to pay attention to them as individuals and not define them by their problems at home or by their sibling’s illness. Notice them, let them be lighthearted, and of course give them a place to share what they’re feeling.

At what point did you feel like you could start sharing, that you didn’t have a family secret?
I didn’t reach that point until I was in my thirties. It actually was a gradual process, and most of it happened internally because I had to overcome my own sense of shame and stigma.

“We are just afraid of mental illness, so we walk away from people. It sends the message that our faith isn’t big enough to handle this…” When I was growing up, I never talked to a counselor; I never talked with a trusted adult. I didn’t even talk with my friends, so I didn’t have the opportunity to process it at that time or to really understand what was happening. So now I’ve worked with some grief counselors to help me do that.

I began drawing closer to my siblings, which made a huge difference because there was a time when we were little and growing up together that we didn’t even talk to each other about what was happening. We all adapted coping mechanisms to help us individually deal with what was going on.

The awesome thing is we do that now, but it took us a long time to get to that point, to find the courage to actually talk to each other about it. As I talk about it, that sounds so ridiculous to me. What was I so afraid of? But it was very scary.

I did go to a pastor once and share a bit of my story and ask for some help on these questions, and I swear I think I scared the daylights out of him because he did not know what to say to me. It was a very troubling moment for me, and very disappointing.

So from there I just took those questions and my anger straight to God, and I just admitted them and I asked him to answer, I actually challenged him to answer—and he did. He did it through the Scriptures, he did that through my own communion with him, he did that through other people over time, he did it through opening my ears to actually hear some of these answers.

As I did that and went through that process, I came to the point where I could share this. It was more like I was healed and then put it out there. After that, it has been like layers and layers of healing.

How has that impacted you?
I’ve had the incredible experience of discovering that there actually was a lot of compassion out there for me. There are a lot of others who share my experience, and I’ve never had the joy of that experience because I never felt like sharing. People come to me, and say, “Me too.”

What has getting that reaction meant to you?
One piece of it was that what I thought was true when I was 14 is not true. Personally it’s been an incredible blessing and healing, to discover again and again that I’m not alone, that my family is not alone. But the big thing actually is that I am so grateful to God that I have the amazing opportunity to see directly and indirectly in living color God’s redemption at work. To see God use my family’s story to ease the suffering in somebody else or to just help someone else learn that they are not alone is something I am tremendously grateful for.

I always come back to Romans 8:35-38. People think that their mental illness or their family’s mental illness has separated them from God or that God has left them, but God does not leave us. If the powers of hell cannot separate us from the love of God, mental illness doesn’t either. So I try to encourage people with that.

God is with everyone who suffers, and he cares for everyone who has a mental illness. God’s purpose for us is not thwarted by mental illness. You still matter and your life can be great.

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