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Few pastors deal with the mentally ill, survey shows

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   United Methodist pastors agree the church should become more involved in education about mental illness and families affected by the disease, but few deal with the mentally ill on a regular basis, a new survey shows.

   Researchers from Indiana University East and Ball State University in Indiana conducted a survey of 1,031 United Methodist pastors in Indiana and Virginia. Funding came from the Indiana Consortium for Mental Health Services Research.

   The results didn't surprise Joan LaFuze, the medical physiologist and professor at IU East who initiated the survey. Currently members of First United Methodist Church in Hagerstown, Ind., the 62-year-old and her husband, Ralph, are lifelong Methodists. They have a son who was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1981 and a daughter diagnosed with panic disorder in 1982.

   "I can't describe what happens when you enter the world of mental illness," LaFuze told United Methodist News Service in a telephone interview. "It was like going to a foreign country."

   While the LaFuzes found the church loving and supportivsupportive, they did not find it helpful in trying to deal with the crisis that mental illness caused in their family. She hopes the study "is a beginning in looking at the role of pastors and the role of the church in meeting the needs" of families facing mental illness.

   Among the survey's findings: Most pastors reported knowing five or fewer families, on average, with mental illness in their congregations. About 90 percent rejected attitudes of hopelessness or blame regarding mental illness and agreed the church should sponsor more programs that educate pastors and support families. Less than a third worked in churches that offered outreach services for the mentally ill and only 10 percent had counseled a mentally ill person on a weekly basis.

   Despite the lack of involvement, 43 percent of the pastors surveyed said an immediate family member suffered from some sort of mental illness. "They were much more personally aware of mental illness through their families than their parishioners," LaFuze said.

   She believes that pastors - as leaders of the congregation - and as many lay people as possible need to understand the nature of mental illness. While many people realize that mental illness has a biological component, she explained, they are not necessarily aware that the behaviors exhibited "are actually symptoms of an illness," in the same way that a fever or cough is a symptom.

   LaFuze suggested that seminary students should have some actual experiences interacting with families and people that are mentally ill and that a continuing education program could be developed for pastors.

   Congregations also must recognize that the family is grieving, and they must work to reduce the stigma associated with mental illness, which she said is similar to the stigma attached to cancer years ago.

   In some ways, a diagnosis of mental illness is more traumatizing to a family than a diagnosis of cancer. "Often, the illness itself causes the person who suffers it to be hostile toward the family," LaFuze added.

   But there can be progress as well. Her daughter has been able to control her disorder and earn a doctorate in electrical engineering, marry and have a child. "She is able to do so well because the medications work more effectively for her," LaFuze explained. "It is possible, even with the most severe mental illnesses, for many people to live very effectively."

   Some churches around the country have established drop-in centers for the mentally ill, run by a knowledgeable person, that provide planned programs and transportation. She encourages congregations to make contact with the National Alliance of the Mentally Ill to find out more about the organization and how to work with its support groups and family-to-family education program.

   LaFuze was assisted in the study by David Perkins, a psychological science professor at Ball State, and George Avirappattu, then at IU East, who helped with the statistics.

   Perkins also encourages efforts by churches to deal with mental illness. "With so many more people with mental illness living in the community now, often in isolation and without much support from other people, I think churches are in a good position to help many people with mental illness meet important spiritual and other needs," he said.

   Although LaFuze is dealing with her own illness - she has Bell's Palsy and was diagnosed with cancer last summer - she said she would like to follow up on the survey if funding becomes available. She is interested in doing a broader survey of United Methodist churches in the United States, particularly looking at regional differences regarding response to mental illness, and she would like to conduct interdenominational surveys in selected locations.

   LaFuze can be contacted by e-mail at

February 17, 2000

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