ADHD, children, faith, illness

12 Times Local Churches Showed Us They Don’t Understand Neurodiversity or Mental Health

When I started writing this post, I had planned on calling it, “How One Church Showed Us They Didn’t Understand ADHD.” But, then I realized the problem goes so much deeper than ADHD, and the issues are far broader than just one church. There is a huge problem in the church of misunderstanding and even mistreating those with mental health problems. According to my count, we have experienced problems in thirteen churches over the last 20ish years. Some of those churches, we attended for years, while others we only attended once. All the while, my family has remained faithful to Jesus while often feeling rejected and unsupported by many of the churches that are around us. I am not saying there are no good churches out there, but I think there needs to be a whole lot more understanding and grace than my family has received from most congregations we have been a part of. Since approximately 25% of the population of the earth is neurodiverse (and 50% is introverted), it would behoove the church to learn about these conditions and open their arms and their hearts to those who desperately need support. Although many of these stories are frustrating and even upsetting, I didn’t write this to garner pity. I wrote it to raise awareness of how special needs families are sometimes –too often– treated in churches.

Here are my 12 times when churches made it obvious that they didn’t understand mental health or neurodiversity:


1. Postpartum depression.

After my second child was born, I developed some pretty serious postpartum depression. I started shutting down emotionally. I couldn’t feel anything. I had always wanted was to be a mama, and we had struggled to even get pregnant. Not even my babies who I had prayed so hard for brought me joy.

It got so bad that I started having episodes of paranoia. I thought someone had installed cameras in our house to spy on us. I was afraid people were following me. Years later, I would hear this called postpartum psychosis.

One day, I was driving down our local state highway with my babies in my car and felt the urge to throw the car into the oncoming traffic. I knew something was very, very wrong. I’m a very caring person who under normal circumstances wouldn’t hurt anyone –let alone myself and my babies.

I didn’t even hesitate: I marched into my doctor’s office and told her I needed help. She referred me to a psychiatrist who got me on a medication for the postpartum depression. I was so glad I had gotten help! I had heard the horror stories about moms hurting their babies and had no desire to become another statistic or cautionary tale.

What I absolutely did not expect was the backlash at church.

A normal person –upon hearing that someone was suffering from a serious and potentially life-threatening condition and they sought treatment –would be proud of the person and happy for them.

Nope.

I was told not to take medication because it was poison. I needed to go see a nutritionist that the pastor’s wife liked and stop the medication immediately.

I needed to pray more. My real problem was lack of faith they told me. I was enrolled in a discipleship class, and they wrote down in the church documents that I was a new convert. It didn’t matter to them that I had made a profession of faith when I was a child, had been baptized as a young person, and had already taken discipleship classes at other churches in the past.

Because, according to them, someone who was truly saved would never be depressed.

I remember looking at my husband and asking if he would have married me if I hadn’t been a Christian. He said wouldn’t have and that he had no doubt that I had been a Christian since long before I met him.

Needless to say, I did not heed their advice. I knew I needed that medication, so I took it.

The discipleship classes didn’t last long, because it was hard to keep up with all the studying and the discipleship classes with a newborn. Plus, I had a three-year-old on top of that. It was 35 minutes to church, class was an hour long, and it was 35 minutes home. My baby was nursing every hour and a half and wouldn’t take a bottle. I was not allowed to bring my baby with me to discipleship classes. No childcare was provided so I had to hire a sitter which I couldn’t afford and then rush home to feed a screaming, frantic baby.

This church’s response to me getting mental health help has always baffled me –even angered me.

But mostly it has motivated me to try to help Christians understand the truth behind mental health.

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2. Learning disabilities.

My preschool son was kicked out of Sunday school.

I was told my son was not welcome back in the 4-year-old Sunday School class until I taught him to write. I was accused of being a bad mother and a bad homeschool teacher because the other 4-year-old children could write their names and some could even write full sentences while he could hardly hold a pencil, couldn’t use scissors, etc.

Years later, I would discover that my son had dysgraphia. I didn’t even hear the word dysgraphia until he was about 10 years old. He would struggle with pain in his hand from writing and lack of fine motor skills for years. I knew something was not normal. If I tried pushing him to write, he would have panic attacks and cry because it hurt.

The Sunday school teacher would not listen to me explain the problems we were having. For being sensitive to my son’s needs, I was labeled a defective parent. We were excluded from children’s activities and gossipped about.

I was finally able to get my son back into the children’s program by volunteering to teach some of his classes. This was about 3rd grade. I ended up keeping him with me in the adult classes unless I was teaching the children’s class. We tried putting him back into classes more than once, but we only had one teacher for one semester who didn’t view him as a problem child and blame it on me.

The truth is that I worked really hard for my son. I wasn’t a slacker. I wasn’t shirking my responsibility as a teacher and a mother.

He was a good kid too, just a little high strung.

My son just had unique struggles that required grace and finesse to handle. Unfortunately, there was very little grace given to either of us.


3. ADHD.

When I was diagnosed with ADHD, I was 6 weeks shy of my 30th birthday, and I didn’t know a single soul who thought ADHD was real. I was incredibly excited about the diagnosis because it answered so many questions for me. It was life-affirming, validating, cathartic, and a huge relief to know that I didn’t just have fatally flawed character.

I looked around at my friends at church, remembering previous conversations about mental health, and decided that it was in my best interest to keep the ADHD diagnosis to myself. Most of these women didn’t even use medication or go to the doctor when they were very sick. This was the same group who had shamed me for using antidepressants.

Years later, I found out that another family had a child who was diagnosed with ADHD while they attended the church. They were advised to keep the diagnosis to themselves. ADHD was viewed as a character flaw, sin, failure to let the Holy Spirit refine you, etc. –depending on who you talked to.

Over time, the rest of my family –my husband and my children– would all be diagnosed with ADHD. The church’s bias was a large part of the reason it took me so long to start telling people about my diagnosis. If I couldn’t even trust my church family how would I trust other people with this information?

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4. Giftedness.

My son’s precociousness and impulsivity got him kicked out of kindergarten Sunday school, too –this was a different teacher than the 4-year-old Sunday school class mentioned above.

But this was the real issue: because my son is gifted, he has often been held to a higher standard than other children his age and given even less grace. Most people do not understand that it is possible to be both intellectually gifted and developmentally delayed. Just because someone is highly intelligent doesn’t mean that they are able to control their impulses better or regulate their emotions in a superior way than other 5-year-old little boys. He often struggled with being upset when he didn’t get his way, but he was not given the same latitude that other children were given when they were upset.

In fact, ADHD and giftedness are often combined and are greatly misunderstood. I am so tired of hearing comments like “He is smart; he will figure it out,” as a dismissal of my children’s real, legitimate conditions.

Being intelligent doesn’t mean that you don’t struggle with mental health problems or developmental disorders.

It just means that most people give you less grace.

Another bizarre instance of this: the midweek 4-year-old’s teacher refused to let him back in her class until he apologized for “lying.” His perceived offense? He believed he was older than Jesus. He believed this because Jesus’ birthday was in December and his birthday was in January. In 4-year-old logic, since January comes before December, my son thought he was older than Jesus.

He was four.

FOUR.

Timelines, dates, and ages are very hard to understand at that age –even for gifted children. I remember asking my mother if they had cars and electricity when she was little because I had a hard time understanding this concept in grade school. I remember being about 8 years old when timelines really started making sense to me.

But, nope. I was told I was raising a child who blatantly lies, and until I forced him to apologize he was not welcome back in her classroom. She wouldn’t even discuss it with me beyond demanding an apology.

I wish I could say I am joking.

Under no circumstances was I making my son apologize for being a child and having a child’s understanding of the world. So he stayed with me. This was one of many times we tried church classes again and decided the children would just stay with me.


5. Anxiety disorder.

I have written before about the difference between an anxiety disorder (a medical condition formerly called phobias in which your brain misfiled information) and anxiety (choosing to be fearful and not trust God which is a sin according to the Bible). These two things are not the same.

And yet, the pastor at one church we were attending –when he found out my husband had been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder– took it upon himself to try to confront my husband about his sin of having an anxiety disorder. We had just started attending this church. We didn’t know the pastor very well, and he certainly had no gauge except his own prejudices to convince him that my husband was in sin.

I intervened as soon as I figured out what the pastor was intending to do and got us away from the church before he had a chance to engage my husband with accusations.

We never returned to the church.

My husband suffers from a number of mental health problems which significantly complicate our lives. Those who do not live with and love those who have severe mental health problems do not understand the impact it has on those who suffer from it and their loved ones.

The last thing we need is accusations coming from the place where we should be getting support.


6. Mood disorders and bipolar.

I looked at attending –but never actually went to– a church which openly considers bipolar and other mental health problems to be demon possession. I have also heard this point of view repeated by popular pastors who I respect and agree with regarding most theology, for example, John MacArthur.

The Bible doesn’t really touch on the topic of illnesses of the mind. Although there are instances of demon possession in the Bible, in no way does the Bible say that any and all afflictions in the mind are demon possession! That’s a ridiculous leap.

If that were true then I guess migraines are demon possession, too? What about traumatic brain injury? Fetal alcohol syndrome? Where do we draw the line if we start labeling mental ailments demon possession? Was my headache last night demonic?

That’s ludicrous.

I wish I could say that this sort of belief was uncommon, but it is not. In many churches, if mental health conditions are not considered demon possession, they are considered a sin issue. Since I have multiple family members with mood disorders, I find this very disturbing, especially for the children I know who suffer from these disorders.

It is hard enough to find acceptance outside of the church. Of all the places that someone suffering should find support and acceptance, it would be a church.

However, I have a friend with bipolar who gave up on churches two decades ago because she could find nowhere to attend that would not pass judgment on her for her disorder.

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7. Personality.

Personality is just part of the way God created your mind to work. It’s not an ailment but definitely a function of the brain.

The same church that didn’t believe in ADHD or in treating postpartum depression treated my husband like he was ungodly for having an anxiety disorder –but it was more than that. He was ungodly for not looking like what they considered a godly man to look like.

A godly man to them was bold and forceful. He knocked on doors and handed out Bible tracts. He was willing to engage in verbal battles with complete strangers about the Bible even if that meant offending or upsetting them. He was gregarious and boisterous.

He also must have a wife who is timid and demure, which I am not –by a long shot. What is it about some men that makes them want weak women, resenting when God builds women into strong creatures who can stand up for what is right?

But I digress.

At this church, everything about my husband –even his very personality– did not line up with their perception of what it means to be godly. Neither did my personality. So they sought to change us by pushing, plodding, or outright criticism.

Eventually, he just stopped going. I wish I could say this was an isolated incident.

I am not even going to begin to address how often I have been mistreated at churches for not having a “right” personality to be a “godly” women.

This has happened at more than one church. I have even lost friendships over this issue.


8. Sensory Processing Disorder.

My husband and children have sensory issues.

For my husband, it is mostly noise related. He is incredibly sensitive to sounds and finds loud noises so disquieting that it can affect his sense of calm him for hours afterward. Unfortunately for us, we have really struggled to find a church who we agree with doctrinally that also offers a traditional worship service.

Many of the churches around here who offer traditional services do so because they believe that all forms of music except hymns are a sin. Churches like that are a kettle of fish we have nearly drowned in before and are uninterested in attempting again.

There are some local big churches that offer traditional services among all their choices but most of these are charismatic groups which we don’t agree with doctrinally.

While I realize that many children with SPD wear headphones in these kinds of services, I’d be hard pressed to convince my introverted husband who has social anxiety to wear a headset around hundreds of people. That would not be comfortable for him.

At one church we attended, the children would poke, push, and pester my son until he would have a sensory meltdown. They did this for their own entertainment. The parents told me I was overreacting when I intervened. This was “normal” behavior for children according to the parents, and I needed to accept that my children would be bullied and mistreated at church –after all that is how life is in “the real world.”


9. Introvertedness.

I touched on this issue in number 6. Introvertedness is not really a mental health issue but it is part of your brain make up. It is just the way you’re wired.

Either you get your energy refilled by being with people (extroverted) or you get your energy refilled by being alone (introverted).

Many church groups have a prejudice against those who are not naturally outgoing –especially if it is a man.

Verses in the Bible about women not interrupting a church service have been misinterpreted by some church groups as a call for women to not have opinions at all and let men have all the opinions. Consequently, if you are a man who is soft-spoken and kind, who respects his wife instead of steamrolling over her, who consults her in matters of life, and who cares about her opinions without trying to suppress and control her, you are viewed as less than.

This is especially true in some of the more conservative churches.

This is very frustrating for me as a wife because I have a fabulous husband who, in my opinion, other men would do well to imitate –I have never met a more kind and gracious man than the one I married. This is a strength, not a weakness.

Additionally, music leaders should note that those who are introverted do not wish to shake hands with five people and make small talk in the middle of the service on queue when directed by the music leader. Most music leaders are extremely extroverted and cannot fathom the stress this alone causes those who are not extroverted.

Don’t believe me? Ask an introvert.


10. Highly Sensitive Person.

Church is full of people.

People are full of drama.

All of them.

They cannot help but be.

Some even go manufacture more drama to keep their lives interesting.

Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) is not a mental health problem, but it is very common with ADHD.

Being highly sensitive means that I cannot handle attending Sunday school, worship service, Sunday night service, Midweek service, and ladies Bible study. It is too much for me. In many churches, if the church doors are open, you’re expected to be there. But (not even accounting for my chronic illnesses), the stress of being exposed to people’s ongoing drama is often just too much.

A lot of people, especially physically and mentally healthy people, will not understand this.

Those of us with HSP take the emotional stress of other people onto ourselves because of our high sensitivity and the empathy that accompanies it.

Many churches actually increase drama (emotional music performances, prayer times, testimonials, videos of children dying in third world countries, drama presentations, committees to resolve conflicts in the church, pressure to take on more ministries, etc) to keep people interested and try to make people invested in the struggles of others, but this only further isolates those of us who are highly sensitive.

We are already invested in the suffering of others.

Most of those things are not necessary for the church to do its job of training believers in the Bible. Discipleship –which is the church’s main job– could be a very calming and life-affirming process. It doesn’t have to be dramatic.

You know how there are Facebook groups that are the “drama-free version”? I have said many times that wish I could attend the “drama-free version” of church.

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11. The mental load of being physically and mentally ill.

Some time ago, I found a church that was over an hour away from us. It was very close to what we had been wanting both doctrinally and socially, so I called and talked to the pastor’s wife hoping that they would know of a similar church near us. She did not, and she strongly discouraged me from trying to attend their church because it was so far away from us.

I had spent an hour explaining about our health and mental health problems, how hard it is for me to be the mom of special needs children and wife to a special needs husband while chronically ill myself, and the toll that church had on us.

What she said next really surprised me.

She recommended that I join a local church and make it my mission to forcibly change that church from the inside out.

First of all, that showed that she really didn’t understand anything I had just told her about how sick I am, how absolutely debilitating physically and mentally health problems are, or how hard it is to be a special needs wife and mom.

On a daily basis, I can feel like I am drowning in the necessities of life without taking on any more.

While I wish this wasn’t the case, I am in a position of needing someone to take care of me –not in a position to wage war on a church body.

Second, I truly cannot fathom joining a church with the express purpose of causing problems and trying to change it. Paul has some harsh things to say about people who cause divisions in churches which is exactly what I would be. I have seen people join and church, try to change it, and the result is a church split that tears relationships –friendships and even whole families– apart.

Even if the mental load of being ill myself wasn’t extreme, even if the mental load of caring for husband and children with mental illnesses wasn’t extreme, I could never bring myself to sabotage a church that others had worked so hard to build –not even if I disagree with them doctrinally. The people who attend that church must find it is helpful for them or they wouldn’t attend there.

I would, in fact, be destroying their church family and their support system if I followed her advice.

There’s a verse in Romans that commands us to live in peace with all men. I take that verse very seriously.

I found the whole conversation with this pastor’s wife very upsetting. She treated me like this: if I really loved Jesus, I would be willing to do whatever it takes to force one of my local churches into my view of what a church should be. If I was unwilling or unable to do that, well, I guess that means that I don’t really love Jesus that much anyway.

And, that’s the real reason we never even visited her church. There was a great lack of grace in the way she conversed with me.

There was pity: she thought I was pitiable. There was no compassion and empathy. But, there was a lot of judgment, especially about things she really didn’t understand.

Plus, she was incredibly condescending –as if she was holy and godly –but I was the lowly ungodly person who needed to hear what she was telling me.

Hers was one of the most blatantly ableist attitudes toward those who have health problems that I have ever encountered in the church. I understand that she cannot truly understand what she has not experienced, but as a pastor’s wife, I expected more genuine compassion and understanding. When I called her, I was not even able to drive. I had already explained to her that I was nearly a shut-in at the time, but that did not increase her grace for me.

For those with autoimmune illness, the stress of trying to invade a church and win the battle to alter the course of an entire congregation would be so intense it may be enough to hospitalize them. It would certainly make them sicker because flair-ups in autoimmune diseases are triggered by stress.

She obviously had not even the vaguest concept of what she was asking of me.

I felt further misunderstood and isolated.

This one glimmer of hope that we had possibly found a church home that would accept up was squelched in the light of her judgments.

To ask for help and receive judgment –there is far too much of that going around.


12. Mental Health Denial.

Mental health denial is practically a religion unto itself. Many people who believe that mental health conditions don’t exist have no idea where those ideas even started or why they believe it.

Many Christians do not believe that any mental health conditions are real. I think I have encountered this at nearly every church I have attended.

Some believe it is sin or demon possession as mentioned above. Others believe that it is just an excuse to misbehave or to not have good character. Some believe it is a sign that you are not saved.

A popular opinion among Christians regarding children with mental health problems –especially developmental problems like ADHD and autism– is that the parents just didn’t spank the child enough. That seems especially popular among the more conservative and traditional groups who actually admonish parents to “beat the disorder out of them.”

Honestly, some of the most hate-filled comments I have received about ADHD and mental health have come from my fellow Christians, or at least those who are claiming they are Christians. Christian means “little Christ” or “Christ follower” so whether they are actually Christians would depend on if they are really truly following Christ. That is not something that I can really know.

What might come as a shock to most Christians is that the widespread hatred of mental health originated with a cultic group –Scientology– which has been single-handedly responsible for spearheading mental health denial in the USA and around the world.

Scientology believes that psychiatrists are evil because in their mythology, 76 trillion years ago psychiatrists participated in the mass genocide of aliens. They believe that the spirits of those massacred aliens now float around earth possessing people and that this –as well as nearly all evils in the world today– is a result of the psychiatrists and psychologist. They even blame the Holocaust and 9/11 on the psychiatrists and psychologists.

It is well documented that they have popularized the idea that these conditions are not real because it suits their purposes. One of those purposes, in their own words, is to destroy psychiatry. They wish to replace psychiatry with their unproven and unhelpful “treatments.”

I have yet to have a single Christian who objected to mental health conditions like ADHD come to me with any specific medical research that says it is fake.

Sometimes, I hear the argument that the Bible doesn’t mention it so it is not real. But the Bible doesn’t mention cancer, migraines, diabetes, or Down syndrome either. Are all of those fake too?

Because the Bible says that the world will hate us, some people who claim the name of Christ are quick to look for a conspiracy. I think there is a higher prevalence of conspiracy theorist in the churches I have been part of than any other group I have joined. But, Jesus said they would hate us because of Him. He doesn’t say they will make up fake health problems because of Him.

Do those who believe ADHD is a conspiracy really believe the government is using mental health misdiagnoses to persecute Christians? Even if we are following the Bible, being loving and kind and compassionate, some people will still hate us because they don’t want to see God’s light. But that’s not happening with those who treat mental health. There is no real evidence that Christians are being targeted in any way.

One must remember that while governments are only as good as the people who run them, they are ordained by God and He uses them as His instrument according to the book of Romans. Those who espouse the idea of a big government conspiracy would do well to revisit the passage in Romans.

The real truth about mental health and the church is that the church is woefully falling down the job. Those with mental health problems are often mocked, ridiculed, excluded, gossiped about, and sometimes even told they are not welcome. If it is not outright, often there is subtle communication that they are not welcome.

Jesus said what you do until the least of these you have done unto Him. How much more “least” can you get than those who are rejected by culture and the church alike? In other words, if you mock ridicule, exclude or otherwise mistreat special needs families, it is like you are doing that to the Lord, like you are mistreating Jesus Himself.

We are supposed to be known for our love for one another. We are supposed to treat even our enemies with kindness. But many Christians cannot even be nice to other Christians who have diagnoses they disagree with.

A mark of a Christian is the fruits of the Holy Spirit, including love, patience, and kindness. Those who truly understand God’s grace to them are quick to pass that grace on to other people.

Even people they don’t agree with.


In Conclusion.

With these sorts of attitudes toward those who are suffering, is it any wonder that those who have these ailments end up abandoning the church and practicing their faith in the quiet of their living rooms on Sunday mornings?

I wish I could say that the stories above are isolated incidents. I actually have many more stories but some of them I am not ready to share yet.

I wish I could say that the resistance my family encountered is disproportionate to what the average family with special needs and mental health problems encounters. But, that is not true.

My stories are not isolated.

There are even studies that show that children with autism and ADHD are being excluded from churches in the USA.

Similar stories are repeated by parents of special needs children with some amount of frequency. Heartbroken parents report stealing away for a midnight mass while their children are sleeping even though they are not Catholic because that is the only time they get to go and be in a church. Grief-struck moms and dads report that their children’s conditions make it impossible for them to attend church because the church doesn’t understand their kids or openly criticizes them. The adults that suffer from these conditions eventually give up hope that they will ever find a place that truly shows them the love of Jesus.

One man told me that if he had seen the love of Jesus shown toward those with special needs –the kind of love I described in one of my Facebook posts, he would ever have walked away from the church.

While some churches –particularly the charismatics– are catching up, many other churches –like the Baptists, just one example from my experience since we usually attend Baptist churches– are way behind in their acceptance of those who are different than what is “normal.”

It is my dream that all special needs families would have a church to go to, a church that aligns with their beliefs where their children are loved and accepted as they are with a spirit of compassion and grace.

I must have missed the passage in the Bible where Jesus said, “Let the little children come unto me and forbid them not for such is the Kingdom of Heaven, except the weird kids –the kids with autism, ADHD, and bipolar–, not those ones.”

If He were here today, Jesus, who reached out to the broken and socially outcast of His time, would undoubtedly be on the frontline ministering to those who need Him –including special needs families.

So why aren’t we?

Blessings,

Sarah Forbes

P.S. A heartfelt thanks to those Christians and churches who have embraced our family and all of its quirks.

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