On mental health and the church

You’re standing in your pulpit on a Sunday morning, looking out over the upturned faces of your people. You know some of their personal stories, of the deep difficulties they’ve courageously shared with you. And you know that many more have similar stories to tell but may be unwilling to do so.

Now imagine this. Let’s say there are 100 people looking up at you. If national statistics hold true for your congregation, one of the saints out there is schizophrenic, and may be suffering debilitating delusions. Two or three suffer from a condition known as bipolar disorder, in which extreme mood swings may result in inexplicably “crazy” behavior. Seven will suffer a major depressive episode this year; many more will struggle with anxiety. All in all, about eighteen of your flock can be expected to experience some form of mental illness this coming year.

That’s almost one in five.

If your congregation is larger, you can do the math. A megachurch of 2,000? Expect well over 100 people to become so depressed in the coming months that they’ll want to withdraw from the life of the church; some will think of killing themselves. Nearly 400 will struggle directly with mental health issues, and hundreds more family and friends will be indirectly affected by the fallout.

And just to make sure it gets said: some of the people affected will be in leadership positions.

These are broad-brush statistics; some groups will struggle more, some less. But the point is that mental health problems are far more common than we might like to admit. Is your congregation a safe place for people to talk about them?

In many congregations, people who struggle in any way, let alone with mental illness, are afraid of being stigmatized. It’s okay to tell people we’ve just been diagnosed with some physical illness, and to ask them to pray. But  it’s another to admit, for example, that we’re trying desperately to manage depressive symptoms. The former seems like an unfortunate happenstance, the latter like a failure of will or faith. Those who dare to tell others of their symptoms may be met with bewilderment, condescension, or rejection. Not always, of course, but often enough that the message comes through: It’s not acceptable. I’m not acceptable. I have to do this alone, or go somewhere else.

Surely that’s not the loving community we would hope for. So what can pastors do?

  1. Educate yourself. Know a little something about the nature and prevalence of some of the major disorders. The statistics I cited above, for example, can be found on the website for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (nami.org). In addition, I think one of the best ways to understand the personal plight of the mentally ill is to read not textbooks but memoirs. Many courageous people have written about their experiences with depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, anorexia, and the like. Their stories humanize what otherwise would remain nothing more than an abstract diagnosis.
  2. Educate your congregation. People fear what they don’t understand; a little education can go a long way. But you don’t have to do this all yourself. You may have mental health or medical professionals in your congregation; consider enlisting their help and expertise. You may also be able to take advantage of educational outreach efforts provided by local hospitals and health organizations. Keep your ear to the ground to know the issues your people are wrestling with; look for opportunities to speak a simple but helpful word. In the last few years, for example, I have done two memorial services for men who had suffered from depression and then took their own lives. At one of the services, with the family’s permission, I spoke briefly of the ravages of depression and its prevalence, asking the congregation to think of how they might make it safer for the depressed among us to get the support they need.
  3. Normalize. Every so often, the lead pastor in our congregation says that he thinks everyone could benefit from counseling. I understand what he’s saying, and in general, I agree. But we’re also a mostly white, suburban, middle-class congregation in Southern California. That kind of language wouldn’t play well everywhere. At the very least, however, you can reduce stigma by getting people used to hearing about mental illness. Consider using sermon illustrations and stories showing how the faithful can suffer such difficulties and still love Jesus. Look for opportunities to model the compassionate, hospitable attitude you want others to have.
  4. Network. Know the mental health and counseling resources available in your community. Sit down with people over lunch or coffee and find out what they do. Ask about their training and experience. Ideally, what you want is an up-to-date referral list of people whom you personally trust, and who are not hampered by antagonism or suspiciousness toward the church. Before offering a marriage seminar at your church, for example, you should already know someone to whom you could refer a couple who wants to go deeper; that person should have a track record of successfully working with distressed couples.

And please, please, please prioritize your own mental health. I’ll say more about that in future posts. Making it safe for others to speak of their emotional struggles goes hand in glove with the safety you need to speak of your own.