the shape of leadership

Mental Health and the Healthy Church

Removing the stigma and breaking down barriers.

Chris Colvin on May 3, 2017

Church leaders focus primarily on the spiritual health of their congregations. But what if many of the individuals attending services are struggling with anxiety, depression and other mental health issues? How can churches promote emotional wholeness in their communities so that people can truly experience the abundant life Jesus offers?

One in 4 Americans suffers from some form of mental health problem. These numbers are no different in the church than they are among the unchurched. In fact, 98 percent of pastors have reported seeing some form of mental illness in their churches, according to a 2010 survey by Leadership Journal. More sobering is that 20 percent of children already exhibit some form of mental illness, with symptoms usually presenting by the age of 14 (Amy Simpson, Troubled Minds, 35).

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. The National Alliance on Mental Illness defines mental health problems as “medical conditions that disrupt a person’s thinking, feeling, mood, ability to relate to others and daily functioning.” They range from ADHD to serious psychosis, including schizophrenia. But there are a variety of diseases and disorders in between.

The problem is real, and it’s really happening in our churches. Here are some ways church leaders can show the love of Christ to people who are living with mental health problems.

Remove the Stigma
Despite the efforts of organizations to bring awareness to the reality of mental health problems, the mentally ill still bear a stigma. It’s up to the church to be at the forefront of tearing down that stigma.

For millennia, religious people have viewed any weakness, whether physical or mental, as a sign of sinfulness. In John 9:2, the disciples, referring to a blind man, ask Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

Jesus’ response was to remove the stigma. There was no sin. The disciples were wrong. Later, in John 16:33, He affirms that, “In this world you will have trouble.”

Living in a fallen world, we may encounter mental illness, as well as physical, social and economic hardships. It’s not sinful, demonic or ungodly for someone to suffer from mental illness, just as it’s not sinful, demonic or ungodly to suffer any physical ailment.

The problem is real, and it’s happening in our churches.

When we stigmatize mental health, we put up an unnecessary barrier. But removing the stigma allows people who suffer from mental health problems to begin living whole lives.

Reach Out
Often, ministers feel helpless in the face of mental health problems, and rightly so. Pastors are rarely, if ever, trained to treat the symptoms of mental illness. But there are some things that all ministers can do.

Get educated about the facts on mental health. Learn the major disorders, along with their symptoms and treatments. Also, get a realistic view of what recovery looks like. When we talk about recovering from a physical ailment or injury, we often envision getting back to life as normal. But with mental health, there’s usually a new normal to negotiate. The individual may never feel the same. He or she may never get off medication or discontinue institutionalized help. But that doesn’t mean recovery isn’t taking place. For many, wholeness takes on a new meaning.

Counsel or refer to the proper channels. Your church may offer counseling that is adequate to meet the need. When the need is too great, however, pastors must know when and how to refer members to the best help. Of course, the need doesn’t stop after a referral. Navigating the complex corridors of mental health institutions and organizations can be daunting. As a minister, you can help your people through those difficult times.

Offer a specialized ministry. Whether you provide counseling through your church, consider offering a ministry just for those affected by mental health problems. This could be something as simple as a small group for those who have family members suffering from mental illness, or a specialized ministry that serves those in crisis. Even something like a separate children’s ministry for those with special needs can be a great help to parents.

Offer real, tangible support. What does that look like? Well, think of it in the same way you would think of physical health problems. How would you support a member who has just been diagnosed with cancer or is going through dialysis? How would you minister to the family of someone who has been in the hospital? Providing meals for the family, offering to help with transportation, or just providing a listening ear are the first, and easiest, steps.

Stay connected. The stigma and shame of mental illness sometimes drives families away from church. They may not be able to attend regularly or have what we would call a normal church experience. So, make sure you reach out and let them know the congregation is not judging them. Assure them that they are still part of your faith family and that you are still there to listen.

Church is messy. Mental health problems can make it messier. We aren’t looking for a perfect institution, just a place where God is glorified and people are accepted. That’s what the Church is. God didn’t place the Church on earth to make everyone’s life easier. He placed it here to offer the eternal hope found only in Jesus.

Jesus invited messy people into His life because they were the ones who needed Him most (Mark 2:17). Messy people don’t make us messy, and our goal isn’t to tidy them up. But we can only be a sound body of Christ when we are all together as one.

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