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Word and Way,
Journal of the Missouri Baptist Convention

Gary and Dana Lynch of First Baptist Church
Bolivar, have a son, Adam, 21, who was
diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder.

Mental illness strikes Christian families, too

Mental health professionals recognize that mental illness — defined by the American Psychiatric Association as "an illness that affects or is manifested in a person’s brain" — can be treated with medication and/or therapy. But society has lagged behind in that recognition, and many times the stigma that accompanies a person and family affected by a mental illness can be hurtful. And just as Christians can have cancer, Christians can be mentally ill. Here are two stories from Baptist families tied together by the fact that they each love someone who suffers from a mental illness.

Parents’ support unwavering 
for son whose illness led him 
to ignite home

By Tim Palmer
Word&Way Managing Editor

     As a 16-year-old musical prodigy, Adam Lynch was the subject of a 1997 profile in his hometown newspaper, the Bolivar Herald-Free Press. His skill on the violin, which he began playing at age 4, had earned him a place in the Springfield Symphony.

     "I’d like it to glorify God," he said in the article. "He’s the one who gave me this talent in the first place, and where it will take me, only He knows that."

     As an 18-year-old college student, Adam was back in the newspaper, this time for setting his family’s house on fire with his father, mother and brother inside. All got out alive, though father Gary and younger brother Andy were badly injured when they dropped from the second floor onto a driveway to escape the flames.

     The Lynches’ dream home was a total loss.

     Prior to the incident, Adam Lynch had been seeing things that weren’t there and hearing voices in his head for two and a half years.

     He eventually was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder. This condition causes individuals to experience the symptoms of both schizophrenia and a major mood disorder, such as depression.

     For the past two years, Adam has been receiving treatment at a southwest Missouri residential care center operated by the state Department of Mental Health. He was interviewed there for this article.

     Adam grew up in First Church of Bolivar and accepted Christ as his Savior at age 12. When he first began to experience hallucinations, Adam recalled, he turned to God for help. "I originally thought it was a demon. I prayed and prayed and prayed, but he never went away."

     The hallucinations began in the form of a mouth on a drinking glass. They progressed to a man wearing a derby hat; three different voices; animals; "black holes" that would swallow him if he stepped in; and others. Adam found them terrifying, and he wondered why they kept happening to him.

     "You’ve pledged your life to Christ — then this. It’s confusing. There’s always this thing that says maybe He’s forsaken you. It’s part of being human."

     Adam tried to deal with the problem by himself for a year. Finally, at the urging of a friend, he told his parents about the hallucinations.

     Gary and his wife, Dana, promised to get their older son some help. For Adam, that started a series of psychiatrists, hospitalizations and drug combinations. His struggles continued, and more than once he carried out "suicide gestures" — deliberately harming himself.

     Some of the time he did well. He graduated from high school and completed a semester of college at Southwest Baptist University.

     Then in February 1999, Adam recalled, he became convinced his parents were trying to poison him. He secretly stopped taking his medication.
     "I decided the only way for me to survive was to kill those who were trying to kill me. So I torched the house."

     About 10 months before the fire, Adam had told his father he had been having thoughts of trying to kill his family by fire-bombing the house.

     Their conversation led to a hospitalization and an adjustment in Adam’s medication, after which he did better.

     Dana Lynch recalled, "We never considered ourselves in danger."
     After the fire, Adam was admitted to a psychiatric unit in Springfield before moving to the residential center where he lives today. He continued to struggle with reconciling his beliefs with his situation.

     "You read in the Bible about God healing all your wounds, and the doctors are saying you need stuff humans give. Somewhere in there, I turned it over to Him.

"That changed my outlook — from ‘woe is me’ to ‘this is who I am; this is how my mind is now.’"

     The change has been positive for Adam, who turned 21 in June. "I haven’t felt this good since I was 15 years old."

     He gives credit to his family. "I have the best support system of anybody here. That support has helped reassure me that God never forgets you."

     Asked what advice he would have for individuals and families dealing with mental illness, Adam said: "For the person who suspects a problem, realize they’re not the only ones. There is a system to help. I thought I was the only person in the world who was suffering with this."

     For parents: "Just listen and know it’s not your fault. You didn’t do anything raising the child. It’s brain chemistry. Listen, support, do everything you can to help him get over that problem."

     He tries to help his fellow residents through expressions of concern and prayer. Many of them lack a support system.

     "With no family, no God, no faith to lean on, you feel left behind, like no one cares. If no one cares about you, why should you care about yourself? And I’ve seen that here."

A twofold challenge

     The hardest thing in trying to help someone with a mental illness is finding the appropriate treatment, Dana Lynch commented. The challenge is twofold — the right personnel and the right medication.

     "The recovery is what you focus on," she said, "because there is not a cure."

     The Lynches decided early on they would share freely about Adam’s illness with people who asked. Dana advised other families dealing with mental illness to do the same.

     "Talking openly is the best way," she said. "As church families, as communities, we need to help people feel comfortable talking about it." The Lynches have been able to minister to many people who have approached them to share about similar struggles.

     Gary advised parents of teen-agers to be concerned when what might appear to be "teen angst" goes on for a long time. "Adam struggled with being normal, as all teens do, while struggling with something abnormal. It’s a lot better to get it checked out."

     Dana added, "It can happen to anybody. Mental illness tears some families apart. I was determined through this that we were going to get closer."

     The couple’s faith has sustained them. "I think I’m much less fearful of bad things happening now," Dana said. "When you need God’s strength, it’s there. You don’t even have to ask for it — it’s there."

     She had spent four years getting her dream house just the way she wanted it. "It went in seconds. It’s just stuff. It was not a real tragedy. Adam’s situation is the heartbreaking thing. He has to deal with it every day."

      Two and a half years after the fire, the Lynches continue to be amazed and grateful for the outpouring of love and support and prayer they have received, especially from their church.

     Along with God’s strength is God’s hope. Gary said he and Dana are thankful that Adam’s illness occurred in the late 1990s and not in the 1950s.

     "We have hope now that Adam can live independently the rest of his life, and have a very healthy, productive life." A few decades ago, that was not an option.

     Five years after he began his struggle with mental illness. Adam Lynch believes God has been faithful.

     "I think in the long run, He did answer my prayers — to help me control it."

Source: the August 2, 2001 issue of the Word and Way.

Mental Illness is Not a Spiritual Problem

Column by Ron Kemp

     There are some Christians who believe that mental illness is just a spiritual
problem. They may be the same folks who see a person who is schizophrenic
and conclude the person is "demon possessed."

     These people are the ones who conclude, "Jesus is called ‘Counselor,’ therefore
Christians do not need to see a human counselor."
They see absolutely no need for
a profession such as mine, whereas I tend to see what I do as a calling.

     You, no doubt, know about the mindset of which I speak. These are the folks who
say, "If you just pray hard enough and read your Bible, you will be fine. You would
never need to see a counselor."
Using the same logic, Jesus was also called the
"Great Physician."
Yet Christians do not suggest that if you are a Christian you
should not see a doctor when you are physically ill.

     Several years ago, I was working for a denominational system which believed
the church needed to be open to such human problems. I happened to be talking to
a layman about my work, and I indicated that we would be working with pastors
and their families.

     At that, the layman said indignantly, "Then that person should not be a pastor.
I explained that such a pastor would be full of integrity to admit his need, and
that pastors are no different from their church members.

     Emotional problems and mental illness are human problems. Christians are
human and therefore subject to these kinds of problems.

     It has been pretty well demonstrated that bi-polar illness (manic-depression),
depression and some other disorders are the result of chemical imbalances in
the brain. Certain mood disorders may be the result of bio-chemical imbalances
in the body.

     The purpose of medications is to bring a systemic balance to the person who
is experiencing a mood disorder or mental disorder. Medications can be essential
to treating such difficulties.

     Research shows that for the treatment of major depression, medications and
psychotherapy (talk therapy) are the most effective treatment. Medications alone,
or psychotherapy alone, are not as effective as a combination of the two.

     Many years ago, when I was connected with a university, a young lady came
to me very depressed. On her second visit, she assured me that everything was
wonderful because in a prayer group her friends had prayed for her. Now she
had no more problems.

     Within a few months, she was dead as the result of suicide. The young lady
was suffering from a bi-polar disorder. In this case, some good-intentioned
Christians were rather dangerous for her.

     I am not saying that prayer and Bible study are not effective. I believe they are.

     But just because some Christians make judgmental statements which disparage
counselors and medications for emotional and mental illnesses, don’t let that keep
you from seeking the help you may need.

Ron Kemp is a marriage and family therapist in Bolivar [and former affiliate of Southwest
Baptist University

Source: the August 2, 2001 issue of the Word and Way.