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Mental Health and the Church | Book Review

Welcoming and helping those who are struggling

In the spring of 1996, I entered an extended season of sadness. Not the kind of sadness where you wistfully wipe a tear from your eye with a Kleenex, by the way. It was the kind where you wake up in the middle of the night sobbing uncontrollably for hours. The sadness lasted for months.

A licensed Christian counselor diagnosed me with clinical depression. Through prayer, Scripture, counseling, and the help of family and friends, I made it through that awful season, one of the worst I have experienced in my life. One I don’t ever want to enter again.

The first time I mentioned this episode in a sermon, I was surprised by the grateful response I received from a few members of the congregation. Though their words varied, their responses repeated a theme: “I’m glad to know that I’m not the only Christian who struggles with this.”

After that sermon, I began to reference my depression if it was appropriate to the content and context of my message. I want people in the Church who struggle with mental health to know they are not alone.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month in the U.S. Summarizing statistics about the incidence of mental illness among U.S. children and adults, Dr. Stephen Grcevich writes, “more than fifty million Americans today experience at least one diagnosable mental health disorder on any given day” (emphasis in original).

These disorders can be episodic or persistent, and they can vary in intensity and effect. Many churches have begun excellent “special needs” and “disability” ministries, but these tend to focus on obvious, physical problems. By contrast, mental health disorders are a “hidden disability.”

Mental health disorders keep people away from church, unfortunately.

Grcevich writes: “Whether we realize it or not, our expectations at church for social interaction and conduct, when combined with the physical properties and functional demands of our ministry environments, represent significant barriers to church involvement for children and adults with common mental health conditions and for their families. Church can feel like hostile territory for families impacted by mental illness.”

The twin goals of Mental Health and the Church are to identify those barriers and to outline a “mental health inclusion strategy” for overcoming them. The barriers include stigma, anxiety, executive functioning, sensory processing, social communication, social isolation and negative experiences of church.

Stigma arises because churches mistakenly interpret mental health disorders as moral disorders. A child with ADHD lacks self-control in certain environments, for example. Self-control is a moral virtue. Ergo, the child has a moral problem. Right?

Grcevich believes churches can and must do better at ministry to people with mental health disorders.

It’s not that simple. An ADHD child can exercise some degree of self-control, but certain environments stimulate the child’s hyperactivity and inability to focus.

Too often, churches blame the child, not realizing that the way the environment of the Sunday School classroom (brightly colored walls with lots of decorations) or the nature of the activities (hyperkinetic worship followed immediately by sitting and listening for long periods) can work against ADHD children’s ability to control themselves.

The next three barriers — anxiety and other mood disorders, executive functioning weaknesses, and sensory processing disorders — describe how mental illness itself creates barriers to participation in church activities.

Consider sensory processing disorders. Today, many churches darken the auditorium and light up the stage for the song component of their worship services. They crank up the volume and often use flashing lights in a well-produced, high-energy set of music. Many people love this. People with sensory processing disorders don’t. It’s overstimulating and distracting. Indeed, it literally can be painful to them.

The final three barriers pertain to the barriers that result from the clash between the first four barriers and church participation. People with mental health disorders find it difficult to communicate in what most of us take to be a normal church situation. They became socially isolated.

And because churches don’t always treat people with mental health disorders well — including children — they and their families develop a bank of negative church experiences.

Grcevich believes churches can and must do better at ministry to people with mental health disorders. For each of the seven barriers just identified, he proposes a strategy for overcoming it. “Mental health inclusion is best understood as a mind-set for doing ministry rather than a ‘program’ for ministry,” he writes. He uses the acronym TEACHER to outline that strategy:

T: Assemble your inclusion TEAM.
E: Create welcoming ministry ENVIRONMENTS.
A: Focus on ministry ACTIVITIES most essential for spiritual growth.
C: COMMUNICATE effectively.
H: HELP families with their most heartfelt needs.
E: Offer EDUCATION and support.
R: Empower your people to assume RESPONSIBILITY for ministry.

Grcevich provides helpful suggestions and examples under each of these seven headings, but for purposes of this review, I think it will suffice simply to name the elements of the strategy.

Too many people in America suffer mental illness silently and alone. The church, an institution founded on the good news of Jesus Christ, should be a place of hope and help for them.

Mental Health and the Church is an excellent resource for pastors and other church leaders, showing them how to offer hope and help. It is based on sound conservative theology, but it also is attuned to the best in contemporary, evidence-based psychology. I recommend it enthusiastically.

Book Reviewed

Stephen Grcevich, M.D., Mental Health and the Church: A Ministry Handbook for Including Children and Adults with ADHD, Anxiety, Mood Disorders, and Other Common Mental Health Conditions (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2018).

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