When Amy Simpson was four years old, her mom would often lock herself into her bedroom for hours at a time. While that’s not an ideal situation at any time, the bigger issue is that this would happen while Amy’s dad was at work and her older siblings were at school. So that left Amy and her two-year-old sister on their own.
More than a decade would pass before Amy’s mom was diagnosed with schizophrenia, though she’d been showing symptoms—some quite concerning—since she was in her late teens. This was the 70s, after all, and mental illness carried much more of a stigma than it does today. And it was never discussed in the church, which was a major problem because Amy’s dad was a pastor.
Amy recalls that her mom didn’t have any friends. She knew plenty of people an interacted with them on a regular basis at church, but her mom socially struggled, and she was very withdrawn and disengaged. She often couldn’t explain her thoughts or emotions.
In many families that have a family member with a mental illness, it’s very similar to households where someone has an addiction. Everything centers around that person. Everyone does what they can to make adaptations to protect, avoid, or keep from upsetting that person. This is what happened with Amy’s family, without anyone acknowledging it. She also can’t remember a time when things felt “right” with her mom.
“From as far back as I can remember, I lived with the conviction that I was stronger than my mom.”
“She needed my help and protection. … That awareness was always with me, but it wasn’t something that I processed. The whole family functioned that way without talking about it.”
When Amy was 13, her dad left his job as the pastor of a rural church, and he didn’t have another job lined up. She’s not sure why they left the church, but she speculates it had something to do with her mom. “I don’t think they were really aware of her illness, but I think she somehow didn’t fulfill their expectations, or maybe they were upset with her behavior.”
At this point in Amy’s life, she had lived in the country for as long as she could remember. Her biggest fear was moving to the city, but that’s exactly what their family did. They moved into a rental house on a Friday in August, and school started on Monday. The kids had no idea where they were supposed to even go to school, so they asked the neighbors.
Amy had a difficult time adjusting to her new life. Just a few months earlier, she had graduated from eighth grade in a class of four people. Now she was starting high school in the city with 2,000 kids. It was complete culture shock for her, and it took nearly a year for her to fully adjust and thrive in her new setting.
Unfortunately, the stress of moving and the new environment were too much for Amy’s mom. She wasn’t able to adapt like her kids did. Amy recalls that her mom was barely functioning. Amy and her sisters convinced their dad they needed to get help. At the time, the family was surviving on government assistance, but he was able to track down a Christian counselor who agreed to a few free sessions. However, Amy’s mom simply claimed to be depressed, so she didn’t get the help she so desperately needed.
Things finally came to a head one day when Amy was 15. Her dad failed to pick her up from track practice after school, so she called home. A neighbor answered the phone and informed Amy that her mom had to go to the hospital because she’d had a stroke. In reality, her mom had a complete psychotic break, and she was admitted into a psychiatric hospital. This was just the first of many visits over the years.
“That day is the day my family was broken.”
“Even though this problem was present before then, and this had been building for awhile, that day is when it all was impossible to ignore any longer. So my high school years are really marked by my mom’s illness, hospitalizations, medications, and trying to get her back.”
Amy’s two older siblings were in college by this time, so the bulk of the household chores and taking care of their mother fell on Amy and her younger sister. As with any sort of family trauma, Amy learned some coping mechanisms.
“One of the coping mechanisms I developed was to almost create two versions of myself. When I was at home I was really immersed in my family’s struggle. I was trying to help my mom, keep things running, take care of everybody, take care of my sister, and it was really hard. I was in crisis. When I left the house, that all went away.
“I just became a different version of myself. … I was a normal teenage girl. That’s what I wanted to be, so that’s what I did. I was on the track team. I ran cross country. I was in marching band.
“I didn’t tell anybody what was going on in my family.”
“It was just a separate thing. That was not the healthiest way to live, but it was really helpful to me, and I’m grateful that I developed that ability. But I had to unlearn it later.”
When asked how she thinks she could have done things differently and in a more healthy way, Amy says, “Given the resources I had available to me, which was nothing, I think it was the best I could have done. … It actually really did help me. I developed some skills that helped protect me and helped me get through. What I needed—what I wish I would have had—was help. And I didn’t receive help.
“Nobody in my family ever talked to a counselor or got information or education about mental illness. My church was pretty much silent. They knew that something was wrong with our family, but they really kind of ignored it. I could have coped differently for sure if I’d had support and help. But I didn’t. So I had to do what I could do with my own resources.”
Amy was an adult before she was able to start working through her childhood and the issues surrounding it. One of the things she had to deal with was her own motherhood. She had moments when she wondered how she could even be a mom since she didn’t know how to do it well due to not having a great example. But she realized she could draw from the good things about her mom’s parenting and discard what wasn’t positive.
She has also worried about her own mental health and that of her daughters. Children and grandchildren of individuals with schizophrenia have a much higher chance of developing it themselves compared to the general population. Her risk factor is 13 times the average. So she and her husband keep an eye out for any symptoms in their children.
At the same time, they strive to have a stigma-free household around mental health issues. As their girls have grown up, they’ve talked about Amy’s mom’s problems in age-appropriate ways. The girls have been able to spend time with their grandmother off and on, when she has been out of the hospital and consistent with taking her medications.
However, as with many people with schizophrenia, Amy’s mom is fairly non-compliant with taking her medication. She also has a form of the illness where she lacks insight into it, which means when she’s feeling relatively well, she doesn’t believe she has schizophrenia. So Amy and Trevor have to be wise about when and how much to expose the girls to their grandma.
Several years ago, while Amy was working for Christianity Today, she was asked to write an article about her family’s experience for Leadership Journal. In the process of writing and researching, she realized just how many other people had suffered in silence just as she had. She determined to do what she could to start erasing the stigma around mental illness in general, but also within the church.
This resulted in Amy authoring a book called Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission. In the Introduction, she states, “This is not a clinical work or an academic tome. It’s not a gripe session or a tirade against the church. It’s a book that the church needs because of both its practicality and its stories. It’s filled with personal stories of those affected by mental illness, as well as helpful information about mental illness and how it is treated in the church” (Troubled Minds, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2013: 19).
Since then, Amy has become an outspoken advocate for people with mental illness, she speaks at churches and conferences, and she has been featured in many articles, radio shows, podcasts, and more. You can find links to many of those here.
She has also written Anxious: Choosing Faith in a World of Worry, and the recently released Blessed Are the Unsatisfied: Finding Spiritual Freedom in an Imperfect World. In addition, she owns a coaching business, where she works with leaders to help them see clearly, lead boldly, and live true.
Q&A on Mental Illness
Now let’s see what we can learn from Amy’s experiences about interacting with people who have mental illnesses and their families. Please note that her experience is based mostly in the church, but her responses can be translated into many settings.
Based on your experience, what can be done to help the children of someone with mental illness?
• Talk About Mental Illness
It would have made an enormous difference for me if somebody would have talked about mental illness in the church. They wouldn’t have had to talk to me about it, necessarily, though we’ll get to that. … Just acknowledge that mental illness exists, that it happens to Christians, and there are answers for it and about it in our faith.
I had a ton of questions, and it didn’t make any sense to me why this would happen to my family. We were good Christian people, my dad was a pastor, we participated in ministry, my mom was a very faithful Christian.
I needed somebody to help me understand that that doesn’t mean you don’t suffer, even in horrific ways. I needed somebody to make the connection from mental illness to a general theology of suffering. … I had never heard anything that would put this in a context of faith.
• Allow People to Suffer
My church was not a very safe place to suffer. … Sometimes there’s a lot of pressure on people to be OK and to be, “Everything’s all good, and we have money, and we have power, and we don’t have problems.” It was that sort of church.
In general, if you create a church culture where it’s actually safe to suffer and have problems, and people are willing to acknowledge that they have problems, too, you create a different experience of suffering.
• Offer Practical Help
Directly, we did get a little bit of [practical] help from the church at the very beginning. Some people brought us food. And I think the church gave us a little bit of money the first time my mom was hospitalized, and then it just stopped.
One of my sisters told me that she was glad that it stopped, because she was really embarrassed. She didn’t like being an object of pity. So you don’t want to do that to people, but that’s probably rooted more in the type of church culture that it was than in the help they offered. If it would have been a more loving, accepting community of people where we would have felt like we belonged, it would have been tremendously helpful. [Note: Amy has more to say on this below.]
• Make a Point to Talk and Listen to the Child
It also would have been helpful if somebody would have talked to me and listened to me. I never talked to a counselor or anybody like that until I was an adult. Maybe a youth worker would have taken me aside and said, “Hey, I know things are hard at home. What’s going on?” and just listened to me, cared about me, and prayed for me. I was dying for that. But I didn’t know how to ask for it. And I was ashamed, like a lot of people are, around the stigma of mental health problems.
• Pay Attention to Their Needs
I think it’s possible that people could have seen [what was happening in my family]. It had to have been obvious to people at times that my siblings and I were not well cared for. How could people have missed that we weren’t bathed, I didn’t brush my teeth, or nobody fixed my hair? In general, [it’s important] to just pay attention, show you care about kids, hear their story, be willing to be kind and caring to them, and be a stable force when it feels like life is very chaotic.
How can adults help other adults who have mental illnesses?
• Draw Near to Them
We’re very disconnected from each other, and that problem exacerbates mental health problems. (And this is a societal issue, so we’re not each individually going to fix this problem.) So it’s easy for us to overlook other people’s struggles, because we’re not truly connected with them.
The temptation, when you encounter someone who has a mental health problem, is to draw away. And that is the last thing they need. They actually need you to draw closer. I think if you’re a person of faith, you believe that God loves everyone and that everybody’s got a value and a purpose. We really don’t have any excuse for turning our back on anybody or deciding that the person isn’t worth our time or isn’t valuable.
Often people think they have to fix the problem. You don’t. … You can’t, and if you try to fix them, you’re just going to make things worse unless you’re actually a psychiatrist or a therapist.
That’s not what they need from us. They need us to be their friend and to be kind to them. A lot of times people who have mental health problems feel like they’re walking illnesses, because that’s the first thing people see when they look at them.
We need to look beyond that and see, “This is a fellow human being who has the same needs and desires as me and who might have a harder time getting to some of those things.” … You can be a friend to a person, look them in the eye, listen to them, give them a hug.
• Educate Yourself
We can also get more educated so we actually know what we’re talking about so that we know what other people are talking about when they share with us.
• Be Safe to Suffer Around
We can try to make ourselves safer people to suffer around by being kind and listening and acknowledging that we suffer too.
• Adjust Your Perspective
I often encourage people to think of it this way. If you had a friend who came to you and said, “I’ve just been diagnosed with cancer. My doctor told me I’m going to have to go through a long course of treatment. It might or might not work. They might have to try something else. They might have to experiment with it for awhile. And the doctor said it might get worse before it gets better. I might be feeling pretty bad. And I’m really scared. And I just really need a friend,” you would know exactly what to do for that person. You wouldn’t be tempted to administer chemotherapy. You would be a friend for them. You’d pray for them. You’d visit them. You’d ask them how they’re doing. You’d encourage them.
If somebody came to you and said, “I was just diagnosed with bipolar disorder. I’m going to have to start doing this treatment, and it might or might not work. And there might be an experimental phase where we’re trying to find the right medication or combination of medications. My doctor said it might get worse before it gets better. I’m really scared. I just need support.” Most people would think, “I don’t know how to help you with that. Why are you coming to me? You need to talk to your doctor. I’m not a psychiatrist. I’m not a psychologist.”
Well, you’re not an oncologist either, probably. And yet you know that there’s another role for you to play besides trying to cure that person of cancer. The same thing is true with mental illness. But we tend to go to the problem and think, “I have to fix the problem,” when actually the person just needs you to be there, to be another human being to them and with them. That’s really the main thing we can do is draw nearer to people.
• Take Care of Practical Needs
I always encourage people to think about practical needs. Again, we tend to think of getting people to professional help. And yes, that is important to connect them to professional help or to make sure that they know what their options are. but ultimately, that’s not all they need.
When I talk to churches, I’m always telling them, “Look, you already know what to do for suffering people. You bring casseroles, you take care of their kids, you give them rides, you clean their house, you take care of their dog, you do their laundry, you ask them how they’re doing, you tell them you’re proud of them when they’re pursuing their treatment. We can do all of those things for people with mental health problems. We already know how to do these things, and people who are affected by mental health problems need them too.
Other than your book, Troubled Minds, what resources do you recommend?
• Grace for the Afflicted by Matthew Stanford
This book is written from a Christian perspective and a scientific perspective. He talks about different mental health problems in light of Christian theology and Scripture.
NAMI is a great resource in general. They have support groups, training, and lots of good information on their website.
NIMH has a great website that is really educational. They have a lot of information that helps people have a better understanding of mental health problems.
If you want to contact Amy, you can do so via her website: amysimpson.com. You can find her books on Amazon.com by clicking the covers below.
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