When Dad Has Mental Illness
By Gene Kissinger
I received the call—the one you always dread—just after 3:00 a.m. on Christmas Day. “Dad just passed.” It was my sister-in-law Roberta, and her words left me stunned. I didn't know what to say, so I told her I would call 911. Then I jumped in my car and raced across town to their home.
By the time I arrived, the police and coroner were already there, working the scene. Dad had been in bad health for some time. He had suffered a heart attack five years earlier, and he struggled with COPD for more then a decade. Earlier in the week, he had experienced stroke-like symptoms, but a CAT scan and MRI showed nothing amiss. But it wasn’t dad’s physical state that caused his greatest struggles.
As I answered the coroner’s routine questions about dad’s state of health, my mind kept going back to his lifelong struggle with a mental illness called paranoid schizophrenia, a chronic mental disorder in which a person loses touch with reality. Those who suffer with this disease often hear voices and experience delusions. And schizophrenia gradually took over my father’s life.
A little over 15 years ago, he and mom moved from Lebanon, Missouri, to Jerome, Idaho—where I pastor—to make a fresh start. Dad had many “friends” in Lebanon who had short-circuited every attempt he made to stop drinking, another lifelong battle he faced. I can’t help but assume dad was self-medicating to try to stop the voices in his head and to cope with the paranoia he experienced.
Not long after they arrived in Jerome, dad yielded his heart and life to Christ and quit drinking for good. Sadly, his conversion didn’t improve his mental state. When he and mom first arrived, I didn’t know how to handle the disease. My response to his mental illness was, “Just pray and get over it; you just need to exercise a little more faith.”
In other words, I operated on the misconception that mental illness was only a spiritual malady “dressed up” as a physical problem. I treated it much like you treat any other spiritual or emotional challenge—encouraging my dad to ingest more the Word of God, to pray harder, and to engage in the spiritual disciplines. The things I suggested were good things, but they really were not the only answer to my dad’s problem. After all, who doesn't need more prayer and more Word of God in their lives? But dad’s illness had a physical component I had never taken into account.
It is possible to have a broken brain. The human brain is the most complex computer ever created. It makes anything from Apple or Microsoft look pitiful by comparison. This amazing ultraportable computer weighs less than three pounds, yet it can do things no manmade computer man ever could accomplish. As wonderful as the brain is, sometimes it gets “broken” by a series of biochemical breakdowns I don't even pretend to understand.
One of the side effects of the fall is that sickness and disease were passed to mankind indiscriminately, and one of those sicknesses is mental illness. In some people, the brain simply stops producing necessary chemicals. The condition is just as real as any other chronic disability or disease from arthritis to back pain.
Life for somebody who suffers from paranoid schizophrenia is horrific. My dad lived in constant fear every moment of every day. It wasn't uncommon for him to believe somebody on television was watching him, or that somebody on the radio was listening to him. His condition even made it hard for him to come to church or Sunday school. One time, he quit coming to Sunday School because he thought people were putting drugs into the spare tire of his car.
On more than one occasion, dad turned himself in to the police for some imagined offense or crime. He often had me search Google to see if he had warrants for his arrest. He struggled regularly with suicidal thoughts, and I would drop what I was doing, go to his home, and “talk him down.” It didn’t take long for it to become apparent to me that my dad had a broken brain, and the answers for mental illness went beyond the spiritual answers I had turned to intuitively as a pastor. You might say my time with him inadvertently helped complete my ministerial training.
Help and Healing
How do we help those with mental illness, whether in our families and congregations? Consider four simple suggestions:
Have the right attitude. Be caring. Don’t act shocked when someone tells you they have a mental illness. (According to some studies, 25% of the population suffers from some form of mental illness.) Be constant. When someone has mental illness, he or she will need a high level of care over the long haul. Be ready to go all-in. Be willing to provide help for as long as they need it.
Be holistic in ministering to them. Encourage them to follow doctor’s orders by taking prescribed medications to alleviate the symptoms of the mental illness. Understand that medical treatment works hand-in-hand with spiritual treatment. The medicine repairs the “computer hardware” of the brain, and our Christian counsel is like the “software” that makes that hardware run correctly. Both need attention when it comes to mental illness. You do not compete with the doctor but partner with him to promote physical and spiritual healing.
Provide a safe community. It is vital for the mentally ill to feel safe and to know people care. Mental illness often isolates the individual and removes him from human contact. Comforting those who cannot help themselves is a calling from Scripture (Proverbs 31:8-9; Isaiah 1:17; Matthew 25:35-40; James 1:27; Hebrews 12:12-13), and we can't comfort from a distance. The church has a wonderful opportunity to provide a safe haven for those struggling with addiction, depression, mental illness, and grief. As Galatians 6:2 reminds us, as Christians we must “bear one another's burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ.”
Remember love is the most powerful tool you possess as a Christian. Pastor Brian Brodersen advises: "Ministering to the mentally ill has its challenges, certainly. Sometimes there’s nothing you can say or do to bring them back into reality, out of despondency, or beyond their irrational fears. This is why much love, patience, and understanding is needed. I have spent countless hours over the last three decades listening to and counseling with people who, after the countless hours invested, were no better off than when we started. Such is the nature of mental illness. Yet love endures all things, so you just keep loving them, listening to them, encouraging them, and praying for them. I know from experience that even though many times you can’t totally help those with mental illness, God’s love through you brings enough comfort and peace to take the edge off some of the suffering."
Three years ago, early on Easter Sunday morning, my mom passed away. Last Christmas, my dad joined her in Heaven. I told my family that dad’s Christmas present was to see my mom again, and mom’s Christmas present was to see my father without mental illness. He experienced his first day of freedom from those oppressive fears, voices, and delusions when he drew his first breath of heavenly healing.
About the Writer: Rev. Gene Kissinger pastor’s Jerome FWB Church in Jerome, Idaho. He and his wife Sandy are the parents of seven children (six adopted): Hannah, Charity, Tony, Celeste, Michael, Jordan, and Lucas.