What You Can Do to Address Mental Illness in Your Church
The church does not speak enough about mental illness. It’s a significant issue that remains largely silent in most churches. The church can do more. The church should do more. In fact, research reveals that 65% of family members in a household of someone with acute mental illness believe the church should talk more openly about the subject so the topic will not be taboo. Yet two-thirds of pastors rarely or never highlight mental illness in their sermons or large-group gatherings.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness has done research demonstrating the prevalence of mental illness in the United States. Approximately 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. experiences mental illness in a given year. Approximately 1 in 25 adults in the U.S. experiences a serious mental illness in a given year that substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities.
The median church has about 75 people attending every week. If you are a member of a typical church, then about 15 people will experience some form of mental illness in a given year. If your church is larger, let’s say 300 people, then it is likely that about 60 people will experience some form of mental illness a year.
As a church leader, you know that a significant portion of your congregation will deal with mental illness. Given the prevalence of the problem, it is likely churches of every size, every denomination, and all geographic locations will be affected. Take a moment and reflect. The problem of mental illness is probably affecting people in your congregation right now. Pastors too struggle with mental illness. Individuals are hurting. Their family members and friends are hurting with them. As a leader in your congregation, you have the responsibility connect the ministry of the body with those in the body who are dealing with mental illness.
What You Can Do about Mental Illness
The church is well-positioned to be a key part of the solution to the problem of mental illness. The first place many people turn to when suffering with mental illness is the local church, whether they are active in the body or not. What can you do? How can you lead your church?
- Remove the “taboo” label. Silence often creates a perception that something is off limits. Lead your church with language. The church should become the place where the shame of mental illness crumbles. Those affected by mental illness want their churches to speak more often about it. Mental illness does not signal a lack of faith any more than contracting cancer signals a lack of faith. Speak candidly and with compassion. When you address the issue out loud, many of the taboo perceptions go away.
- Understand the warning signs. Since such a wide variety of mental illnesses exists, a comprehensive list of symptoms does not exist. However, there are warning signs. Take note of extreme mood changes on a regular basis. Any sort of substance abuse is an indicator something is wrong. An inability to complete daily tasks, routines, and work are also warning signs.
- Maintain a trusted network of professionals. No pastor can do it all. No church leader is trained for every potential illness. The church staff should not attempt to handle every case. Some mental illnesses require help from people with proper training. What pastors and church leaders should have is a list of professionals they trust for referrals. It’s dangerous to believe you can deal with every type of mental illness. It’s equally as dangerous to make referrals without knowing the professional.
- Create a clear system of reporting procedures. If someone starts discussing suicide, do your leaders know what to do? Is the staff aware of what hotlines to call if necessary? More than twice as many people die from suicide every year than by homicide. More women attempt suicide, but men are more likely to use deadlier methods. Everyone in your church should know it’s judicious to call 911 if they believe someone is at risk.
- Recognize the spiritual struggle of mental illness. The world is fallen. People are broken. While science has enabled us to understand and treat mental illness better, the suffering is ultimately rooted in a spiritual struggle. Quoting Scripture out of context or offering silly cliché’s (“It’s simply God’s will”) does not help anyone. However, Scripture does demonstrate how we are to show compassion: pray, listen, comfort, and be willing to serve. One of the best ways churches can help is by filling in the gaps for hurting families: running errands, babysitting children, and providing meals. The Good Samaritan was willing to take on inconveniences to serve a hurting man. The church should do the same for those suffering with mental illness.
- Be ready to minister long term. The problem of mental illness will not be solved with quick fixes. People suffering with mental illness could be in for a long-term battle. The church must be ready to walk with people for months if not years. Not every church may be able to successfully create an ongoing counseling ministry, but every church can do something. Group leaders can be trained on the warning signs of mental illness. Staff can be ready with a network of trusted professionals. And everyone can serve someone walking down the difficult road of mental illness. Too many feel as if they are walking alone. The least the church can do is come alongside someone and walk with them, however long that walk may be.
Silence is not an option. Apathy is sinful. The problem of mental illness is a significant one, and the church has been far too quiet in addressing the issue. The likelihood is that several in your church may be suffering today, which means now is the time to act.