Dutiful Love: Empowering Individuals and Families Affected by Mental Illness

Elizabeth L. Hinson-Hasty
Fortress Press, 209 pages

The church visitor who asked to speak with a pastor for advice because she kept losing jobs … and then revealed that she often skipped work to hide from the voices in her head. The newcomer whose angry outbursts during worship and coffee hour frightened those around him … and who, we soon learned, had been made to feel unwelcome at every church in town. The child who found the church’s annual fire drill so overwhelming he learned to stay home that Sunday … and whose family eventually stopped coming altogether as church became yet another place where reactions to their son’s frenzied behavior created stress and shame.

As I read “Dutiful Love,” I recalled these situations (and numerous others from my parish ministry days), in which I was ill-equipped to provide meaningful support to those struggling with mental illness. As Elizabeth Hinson-Hasty makes clear, this is all too common in the church. Additionally, we are shaped by a faith tradition that glorifies self-sacrifice, leading us to unintentionally send families back into the “crawl spaces” to care for mentally ill members in isolation.

Hinson-Hasty understands this; her brother’s severe mental illness dictated her family relationships, and she now experiences the burden (duty) and privilege (love) of serving as caregiver. It is this perspective that inspires one of her most intriguing points: the church can do more to support siblings who are often sidelined by overwhelmed parents, discouraged from airing the family’s business at church, and expected to selflessly put aside their own desires in favor of the mentally ill child’s more pressing needs. I realized that when I encountered someone with mental illness at church, I was so frustrated by my own limitations that I failed to give sufficient energy to siblings and their needs.

Perhaps Hinson-Hasty’s most powerful contribution to this important topic is her theological, scriptural and ethical framework that relies on biblical stories to empower those affected by mental illness. If all are made in God’s image, then those with mental illness are essential. This is not new, but Hinson-Hasty describes communities that center people with addictions and disabilities, inviting others alongside. She approaches Bible stories – Jesus healing a bent over woman, or casting out demons, for example – with a new focus, imagining how Jesus’ intervention might have returned that person to the center of the community, even if the demons returned.

While this isn’t an easy read, Hinson-Hasty deftly writes for both an academic and mass audience. This is the book I wish I had read in seminary; to be clear, it’s not a “how-to” manual for pastoral care classes (and I would be wary of any guide that aims to turn pastors into amateur psychiatrists!) It is, however, a useful addition to studies of biblical and theological ethics, and it’s a book that a pastor would carry with them, knowing they could offer it to colleagues or a church committee. The book concludes with a small group discussion guide, filled with questions that would help a congregation bear witness to how those affected by mental illness are part of God’s plan AND to become the nurturing community that supports them.

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