In 1990, The Clergy as a Resource for Those Encountering Psychological Distress found that a person under psychological distress will turn to their clergy before talking to a mental health professional.
And with 1 in 5 adults in the US experiencing mental illness each year, you better believe this exists in the church; it is after all, made up of people. The conversation around mental health in the church has brought increasing attention from the public eye, as we’ve witnessed and mourned the recent tragic losses of cherished pastors Jarrid Wilson, Andrew Stoecklein and Jim Howard. No one is immune to the health challenges of the human experience, including believers.
I don’t need a statistic to know these things to be true to my own experience, as well as those I’ve spent time with serving in my local church who returned time and time again with the same hurts, habits and traumas. We often turn to our church community to be both mentally and spiritually refreshed, restored and reminded of truth when lies take root. That is a beautiful thing. Since its foundations, the Church has been commissioned as a community of soul care, spiritual healing and collective outreach.
We can trace early Christianity as far back as the middle ages, a time plagued by illness and disease, where monasteries were converted into places of care for those overcome by physical illness and severe with severe mental health issues. There were no public institutional services for health care or its education at the time. Priest-doctors entered the scene to intervene in what would have been labeled cases of “madness” or “hysteria” for a lack of terminology. While a general understanding of mental health remained a mystery and some certainly would consider past methods of treatment objectionable, the church was a foundation of care for its villages.
Let’s be clear, addressing mental health issues wasn’t just shaky for the church but for the world. With no technology and minimal understanding of the brain and its functions, much was left to philosophies, deduction, experimentation and trial and error of what could be observed.
However, despite a thorny past of addressing mental health issues, I do still believe in the hope of today’s Church. I believe that churches in many ways already have the infrastructure to provide the additional support needed for those in our communities who are seeking it.
At the heart of the Church lies the commission to share one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2), care for the interests of others (Philippians 2:4), encourage the disheartened and gently help restore those who are weak (1 Thessalonians 5:14, Isaiah 35:3, Romans 15:1). Most of all, we have a hope that supersedes our earthly circumstances. We have the hope of Christ, whose eternal promises outweigh the sufferings of this world. For these reasons, the Church is not only on the front lines of the mental health crisis but is in the perfect position to foster hope and healing for those at the altar.
One of the questions I hear the most is, how can we create more spaces in our church for the mental health conversation and supporting those who are in distress. I’m encouraged that many of my pastoral friends have a genuine desire to better understand the dynamics and have the right tools of support in place for those in their congregation who are living with the experience of a mental diagnosis. I think there are a number of ways we, as a church, can be a better place of support in this area. Here are 5 practical ways that immediately come to mind:
- Be mindful of the attitude we’re creating around mental illness with our words.
When you’re someone who’s experiencing immense anxiety, depression, trauma and other mood disorders you’re already burdened with an excess of self-shame and hopelessness. So when we add language that is rooted in shame or blame on the person for their struggle, not only does it show a lack of understanding about mental health but becomes far more harmful than helpful to those in distress.
In the Church, we have a tendency to take on a savior complex with the need to be the one who fixes. We jump to black and white answers in cases that may be colored with many different factors. The harder truth is that many times we are the ones uncomfortable sitting with the complex troubles of others that we don’t fully understand so we grasp for quick resolves to relieve our own discomfort and the need to be their answer.
However, life in a fallen world is rarely so tidy. An important first step is understanding a holistic perspective when it comes to mental health. We are bio-psycho-social-spiritual beings. We have biological/neurological, psychological, social, spiritual and even genetic factors that all make up a person’s mental health.
Additionally, we all have mental health, just like we all have physical health. It runs on a spectrum. This means we all have the capability of becoming mentally sick, and some are more at risk than others. Sometimes the depression or anxiety is like a cold and it goes away after a season. Other times, it’s a chronic diagnosis and lived experience. But it can all be managed, treated and sometimes prevented. It is a human health issue, not a moral, theological or character failure.
- Consider having your leadership and laypersons trained in mental health first aid or suicide prevention.
There are now some very useful organizations out there with trained professionals who can help equip others with a basic understanding of mental illnesses, warning signs and what has been proved to help divert a crisis. Sometimes these are one or two-day trainings that you could consider hosting with your staff and those overseeing care ministries or small groups who may be on the frontlines of these encounters. Check out Mental Health First Aid, NAMI’s Educational Programs, or ASIST’s Suicide Intervention Training. There may even have mental health professionals in your congregation who can speak to this.
- Host a mini-conference and have a trusted mental health professional(s) present at your church. Follow with a Q & A session or open a panel discussion to include clinical understanding, biblical perspectives and those with lived experience who would be willing to share.
According to a research report by LifeWay surveying over one thousand senior protestant pastors and two hundred attendees,“Forty-nine percent of pastors rarely or never speak to their church in sermons or large group messages about acute mental illness” and “sixty-five percent of family members in a household of someone with acute mental illness believe local churches should do more in talking about mental illness openly so that the topic is not so taboo”.
Moral of this story, this conversation is both highly desired and highly unaddressed.
If you’re looking to connect with Christian therapists and psychologists consider checking out your local database with Psychology Today, the American Association of Christian Counselors, Focus on the Families Directory for Christian Mental Health Professionals, or Christian Counselor Near Me.
- See if there are any mental health professionals or trained laypersons in your congregation who would be willing to host or help facilitate a support group for those living with a diagnosis and for supportive family members.
Again, there may be educated and trained professionals right in your congregation, some of whom may be retired and would be interested in serving in these areas. Consider the idea of organizing a support group with appropriate guidelines and safety precautions in place for those living with a diagnosis, as well as for the families trying to better support them. Simply having a space of shared experience and group wisdom and accountability can be incredibly healing.
- Have a list of resources prepared and on hand for those in need of further aid or in case of a crisis.
As I mentioned in the beginning, it’s more than likely that people in your congregation who are showing up to church while trying to make sense of the mental health challenges that they face. In that same Lifeway study, fifty-nine percent of pastors had counseled one or more people who were eventually diagnosed with an acute mental illness. That means over half of these 1,000 pastors had someone before them living with a diagnosis needing treatment without realizing it. It also shows how much the church really is on the frontlines of this.
That being said, it would be wise to have prepared resources such as the suicide prevention line (1-800-273-8255). NAMI can sometimes help provide materials such as pamphlets explaining various diagnoses, local recovery programs, or even food pantries, job opportunities and temporary housing services for those who may have lost some basic living necessities as a result of their symptoms, which can so often happen.
Lastly, church please take care of yourselves. As we’ve seen, burn out is real and no one is immune to the weight of mental distress. Still, there is hope for the church and mental health and I believe we are on a path to be better about it.