Home Teaching the Mentally Ill-What should you do?

For those unfamiliar with a home teacher, the idea is to have everyone visited in the ward, whether they come to church or not.  The home teacher often offers a short spiritual thought.  I believe home teaching is based on D&C 20:47, “And visit the house of each member, and exhort them to apray bvocally and in secret and attend to all cfamily duties.”

It’s a nice idea in theory, but in practice, home teaching is quite often something that doesn’t get done very often.  I suspect the average ward completion percentage for home teaching is about 50%.  Usually, people just get too busy to do home teaching each month, but not always.  Home teachers are not always welcome.  In my previous ward, I was assigned to a part-member family (the husband was an inactive member, the wife was a non-member.)  When I got to the door with my partner, we introduced ourselves as the home teachers.  The wife told us at the door that they didn’t go to church, didn’t want to go, and didn’t want us to come back.  I handed her a plate of cookies my wife had prepared, and wished her well.  I reported back to my Elder’s quorum president the exchange, and he told me they would try to have a neighbor become their home teacher on an informal basis.  I had an even more unusual experience today.

Our ward realigned ward boundaries a few months ago, and we got a new bishopric, as well as a new Elder’s quorum presidency.  With all the changes, I had a few months in which I was not a home teacher.  I was given my list of 3 families to visit.  Two of the three families were fairly active.  The other name on my list was just a name, I’ll call Ted.  In December, our bishopric asked all home teachers to pick up a 2 liter bottle of root beer to distribute to our families.  While I distributed mine, my home teacher did not deliver one to my family (so I picked one up myself in January.)

I visited the apartment of Ted in December.  He wasn’t home; an older woman (who I assume must have been his mother) answered the door in a walker.  My list showed Ted had not been visited in over a year.  The woman said Ted was not there right now, thanked me for the root beer, and explained that she would have invited me in, but she was sick and didn’t want me to get sick.  I asked if she preferred I stop by unannounced or set appointments, and she said it was ok to drop by in the future.  She explained that they didn’t go to church very often, and Ted often worked Sundays, but I was welcome to stop by again.  (Normally home teachers have partners, but I haven’t been assigned a partner yet.)

So, I dropped by again today to meet Ted.  He didn’t invite me in, but we talked on the cold porch for about a half hour.  I soon realized as I talked to Ted that he was mentally ill.  He confirmed my suspicions when he told me that he heard voices, had anger issues, and suffered from depression.  I asked if he lived there with his mom, and he confirmed that he did.  He explained that he could afford to live in the apartment by himself, but her social security check made it easier to make ends meet.  He said that when the time comes for his mother to die, he might go live in a mental health facility.  He mentioned that he made a living on disability checks–he had been declared mentally disabled due to depression.

In the half hour I talked to Ted, he told a series of strange, but probably true stories about his life.  He had been married once, but left an unfaithful wife.  In response, he got drunk at a bar, and was angry enough to fire a gun.  It was unclear to me if he was merely firing the weapon at someone or not, but he was arrested and spent time in the LA County jail, where he was physically assaulted by inmates (I’ll spare some gruesome details.)  This is what caused his “anger issues.”  He also mentioned that he was surprised that a mentally ill person could get a gun in California, and then proceeded to fear that Pres Obama was going to take away his gun.  (If anyone needs a gun taken away, it is this man.)

While he had some pretty colorful language he was friendly enough.  He asked where and when church was, and said he would like to come.  However, when he learned that church meets at 1 pm, he didn’t like that time of day.  He has a sleeping disorder, and often is asleep at that time of day.

While we all need God in our lives, I’m not sure that church is a good place for this man to be.  The thought crossed my mind to invite him to church (before he volunteered to attend), but after hearing all these rambling statements, I did not feel I wanted to expose my family to him.  It is obvious he needs serious mental health help.

I’m not sure how to help this man as a home teacher.  I guess my inclination is to visit him monthly, and listen to him, but I have no idea how to handle the situation.  He seems quite unstable, and I feel like he has the potential to cause harm to church members–frankly I didn’t like hearing that he owned a gun and had anger issues.  He was very rambling in his conversation.  So, the question comes to mind, “What would Jesus do?”  Aside from heal him of his mental illness, I have no idea.  Any input is appreciated.

22 comments on “Home Teaching the Mentally Ill-What should you do?

  1. If it were a physical illness, you might find a Mormon doctor in your ward or stake and specifically ask what to do. Perhaps the analogy holds here as well, because a layman can do unintended harm without some specialized guidance.

    Maybe what Jesus wants you to do is give a “sit rep” to the right person to help you (or someone else) actually deal with the problem.

  2. I truly believe that religion can be too much for some people to handle.

    I have an uncle, now in his 50’s, who has had pretty severe schizophrenia since he was about 16. He joined the church probably shortly after my father did in the late 70’s, but I don’t think he was active very long. Schizophrenics tend to be obsessive about certain things, sex and religion being common ones. This is also true in the case of my uncle. He has pedophilic tendencies and cannot be 100% trusted around children by his own admission. But religion, I think, has caused him — and because of that, our family — more grief than anything else. I don’t really remember the time that he was active in the LDS Church, but I can imagine that even just an average day at church would have been enough to send him over the edge and start obsessing about points of doctrine, obedience, etc. As well, simply socializing with other members must have been a problem for him — and for them.

    When I was in my teens, my uncle started watching televangelists and sending them money. If any of you are familiar with Jack van Impe (based in Michigan), who often focuses on very sensationalisic news, rapture theories, Armageddon, etc., my uncle spend hundreds of dollars on books and videos from him and started getting paranoid.

    When I think about some of the things at church that we talk about on an average Sunday, which aren’t a big deal to us (i.e. the second coming, visions, chastity, blessings, the spirit), it can be enough to send a mentally ill person over the edge. In the case of my uncle, he started attending a Pentecostal church and was convinced that God would heal him. So he stopped taking his meds, which sent him into a very bad relapse that took him years to recover from. Around that time, I remember my grandparents being in tears because some of the members of his congregation had practically kidnapped him. Who knows what they were doing, whether it was exorcisms or blessings, I’m not sure. But it seemed that they had convinced him that he just needed to exercise faith to be healed. I remember hearing that he had given all his money to charity because the local pastor had told the members that they had to “give until it hurts.” So he did, and then he literally found himself eating at the local soup kitchen himself.

    It was a sad, sad time for my grandparents and my dad. I remember feeling scared of my uncle for several years because of his odd behaviour. Before it got as bad as when he hit rock bottom, I remember my dad coming home kind of distraught one day because he said that my uncle was “speaking in tongues.” He also told of spiritual prompting and messages “from the Lord.” It was sad because aside from his pedophilic tendencies, my uncle actually has a very childlike innocence to him and he was absolutely convinced of these things. It was sad for him, for the family, and although I do blame the people from the church he was going to for much of it, I also know that they were also incredibly naive. Mental illness can be hard to understand, tougher to deal with, and sometimes it’s not even as evident as in the case of my uncle.

    Luckily, it seems that my uncle now understands (as long as he is taking his meds and is relatively stable as he seems to have been the past couple of years) that he can’t handle religion. I know that he believes in God and Christ, but I don’t think he can go beyond those most basic, fundamental teachings of the Gospel.

    In the case of the man you home teach, I think that as long as she’s alive, it would be most effective to go through her, to ask whether they need help with anything. Knowing his background and the fact that he owns a gun and has anger issues, I probably wouldn’t purposely invite him to church or even leave the HT message unless it was extremely basic stuff: something uplifting, hopeful, positive.

    Since the mother is elderly and perhaps in need of assistance with something, to help her might be the best way of helping him. And in that case, I wouldn’t go alone.

    Aside from that, sometimes I think a plate of cookies is really the best thing you can do, MH. 🙂

  3. I am a Mormon Doctor and had a very similar and very frustrating experience during residency. I quickly realized an individual we were seeing had schizophrenia, reported it to the Bishop, explained that she really pretty urgently needed a psychiatrist, and even got her to tentatively agree to be seen, and then tried to arrange for LDS social services to give her a referral, only to be told she had to make it in, and pay for services of her own accord.
    She could not manage her own life, paying rent, holding a job, etc. because of her illness. Nothing the Church could do for her would be of any benefit until seen by a doctor, and yet, because of the stigma of mental illness, she had to fix herself. It was truly a low point for me in my home teaching career. Our proud tradition of helping others to self sufficiency revealed to me some severe inadequacies that day.

  4. Hi MH,

    Being a mental-health professional (and a Christian) myself, I can say that Ted does not necessarily need to be in a church for you to be helpful to him. I think you’ll do an excellent job just by visiting him regularly, gaining his trust and listening to him with your all…

    The beauty of the gospel is that the pre-disposing factor for attaining salvation is for a person to be in-need-of-help. Your friend, Ted, is in the right place 🙂 I hope that as you continue to meet with him, he will know of Jesus who died, in order to absorb the wrath of God he justly deserves… To go up, is to go down. In a similar situation to clients I meet in my day-to-day profession, I would imagine Ted’s life cannot get any lower. I will pray for him.

  5. I’ve run across several similar individuals, including one who claimed that God spoke to her through her parrot. Some people, and I don’t know Ted so I can’t say in this case, just need someone to talk to. Maybe what Jesus would do is just visit him and be a friend. Don’t go and preach to him. Don’t take him to church. Just be a friend and listen to him.

  6. Thanks for all your responses. I wish there was someone in my ward who was an expert in mental health, but I’m not aware of any who fit the bill. Doc, that’s a tough story. I don’t seem to recall very many positive experiences with LDS social services. While I think it is interesting that they try to provide more professional services, it seems to me that the ecclesiastical leadership handcuffs the therapists.

    Nat, forgive me if this is a stupid question. I suspect he doesn’t have very many friends. I know that some lonely people really latch on to anyone who is nice to them. I guess I have a fear that if I am nice to this man, he may end up like a stalker or something. Perhaps I am just being irrational, but I must say he is a scary looking guy, and his gun talk really bothered me. If I was a single guy, I think I’d be more inclined to visit, but with a wife and young children, I really don’t want him finding out where I live and doing things to my family. Am I being irrational?

    I feel much safer following FD’s advice and dropping off a plate of cookies, with a generically signed, “From your home teachers”. I don’t even want to sign my name…. (He is the weirdest guy I’ve met since my mission 20 years ago.) I want him to know God loves him and the ward cares about him, but he seems REALLY unstable to me. I told my Elder’s quorum president, and he told me not to go back until he has spoken to the bishop about the situation.

  7. MH:

    There can be risk here, so I certainly understand your hesitation. I had the neighbor from hell — and I use the term with theological intent. He rented a home near us, and then repeatedly damaged it so that he could justify never paying rent. He so tormented his landlady (as he had previously done with others) that she was afraid to even come into the neighborhood. When she sought a reason to terminate his lease by asking if he owned a cat (which he did and left out in the cold to hide the fact), and we innocently answered the landlady’s question, he responded by trying to destroy my wife’s business just for starters.

    Some things really are for professionals, and it’s hard to know when you’re walking into one of them without being a professional yourself.

  8. “I guess I have a fear that if I am nice to this man, he may end up like a stalker or something. Perhaps I am just being irrational, but I must say he is a scary looking guy, and his gun talk really bothered me. If I was a single guy, I think I’d be more inclined to visit, but with a wife and young children, I really don’t want him finding out where I live and doing things to my family. Am I being irrational?”

    I don’t think you’re being irrational at all. I think you have to go with your gut instinct, and when I read this post, the thought also crossed my mind about him having the potential to become a stalker. It can feel bad to make such a judgment about someone, but there are several factors in his situation that give it potential, and it’s not irrational to fear something like that happening.

  9. I’d probably suggest you have as many people from your church be aware what you are doing; apply their suggestions to your own wisdom, as you see fit. In all of this, I really admire that you have found (as you do in your daily work) someone whom you have given help to, simply by listening to him 🙂

  10. MH-

    I think it is important that you stay away from the situation unless you know that the man is stable on meds. There are boundaries that you must have when dealing with mentally ill people who aren’t stable, especially when you have a family. He needs some serious help and you can’t give that to him. I don’t think it is worth the risk, especially with the way he was talking to you. Schizophrenic people can be very paranoid and that can lead to erratic behavior. I think you should listen to your instincts and stay away from the situation unless he gets the medical help he needs. It is not your responsibility to take all that on that’s for sure.

  11. Thanks for weighing in everyone. I think I’ll just leave a plate of cookies at the door, signed “Your Home Teachers.”

  12. And what about the mother’s visiting teachers????

  13. I heard the mother has attended the Catholic church in the past. I suspect visiting teachers probably don’t visit much since the family seems to be a bit dysfunctional. Then again, I haven’t asked the Relief Society presidency as to how they handle the situation either, so I can’t say for sure. But the family is sufficiently strange that I’d be surprised to hear if anyone persistently visited them.

  14. In Jesus name this man reaches out to you & you are so afraid. Lets just welcome people to our church that are dressed well & in perfect health. This is likened to the way Lepers were treated in the Bible. WWJD? He would heal,forgive & hug this man,& wash his feet. And certainly invite him into his house. I ask you, where is your faith in God? Faith that he can heal the sick? faith that he can protect you from evil men? How many people are in your church right now that own guns & could be dangerous, & dont tell you they have issues? Im sure if someone raped you in jail you would have anger as well? This poor man needs your Courage, your Faith, your church, your love, & thats the love of Jesus. Not a plate of cookies. I dont meen to judge. But i love a person who has mental illness & scares me sometimes. But they need me. And i know its what Jesus would want me to do. Dont turn away little Mouse. Pull the thorn from the Lions paw. God be with you.

  15. I’m not sure why you felt the need to rant. In the 14 months since I wrote this post, I have only missed 1 month of home teaching (due to being exceptionally busy that month.) When this man or his mother had hospitalizations, I organized meals for the family, and visited multiple times during those months. He’s even been to church a few times. You say, “I dont meen to judge”, but that is exactly what you’re doing. I really don’t know why you felt it necessary to rant.

  16. MH it seems like you are doing the right thing in regards to ted. As some one who has home taught a mentally ill person for the last 4 years I have found that just being there when they could need you is the most important thing. The mentally ill people that I have dealt with feel that they are being judged all the time for something that they have little control over. By not judging ted you are showing him that you can be trusted.

  17. I am bipolar. I worked 31 yrs same company. Always good record. I was assigned to care for the Irate customers because of my patience. I moved to a new ward and my Bishop talked to me like I was stupid. After a surgery going very wrong; he came and looked at me like I was insane as I complained about what they did to me at the hospital. I realized he was on egg shells with me. I realized that was fear in his eyes. A couple of friends verified it. I’ve never done anything hurtful intentionally to anyone. Judge someone that deserves it. There is more non mentally ill violent prisoners then ill. Should I be afraid of you?

  18. Well Debra, I guess it is time for an update. Despite my earlier misgivings, I have met with Ted almost every month. Most of the visits have gone quite well. I have tried to follow Nat’s advice above; I have gone to visit him and mostly been just a listener, and I have helped when some medical issues arose. He has become a good friend, and has even attended church occasionally.

    I’m sorry for the fear I had earlier; Ted is my only experience with schizophrenia, and I had a lot to learn. I think anytime someone talks about using a gun to solve a problem, that should raise some red flags. Whenever such talk happens now, I do my best to change the subject, and ask him if he is taking his medication. These episodes have become less frequent over the past 2 years, and I am very happy about that.

  19. […] attended a memorable funeral a few weeks ago.   Almost six years ago, I expressed my discomfort in home teaching a mentally ill man.  When I first met him, he told me he was a paranoid schizophrenic, he heard voices, and he […]

  20. […] attended a memorable funeral a few weeks ago.   Almost six years ago, I expressed my discomfort in home teaching a mentally ill man.  When I first met him, he told me he was a paranoid schizophrenic, he heard voices, and he […]

  21. […] Back in 2010, I asked for advice on how to handle a mentally ill man that I was home teacher of.  I called him Ted back then and will continue to use that pseudonym.  Let me quote from that post because to be frank, he scared the hell out of me. […]

  22. […] Back in 2010, I asked for advice on how to handle a mentally ill man that I was home teacher of.  I called him Ted back then and will continue to use that pseudonym.  Let me quote from that post because to be frank, he scared the hell out of me. […]

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