Mental Illness and Families of Faith: How Congregations Can Respond

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The fool has said within his heart, “I know there is no God.” He is corrupt, his deeds are vile; There’s no one who does good.

Based on the findings of the Surgeon General’s report on the magnitude of mental illness in this country, we know that one in four families sitting in the pews have a member dealing with mental illness.  Yet our religious communities are often silent when it comes to understanding mental disorders as treatable illnesses. And many of our clergy are hiding their own struggles with mental illness. I am one of those persons.

My depression began in 1991. I was in my third year of ministry at a large urban church. Despite my experience in pastoral counseling, I did not recognize or understand what was happening to me. Few people at church knew about my depression and hospitalization. For two years I suffered in silence, hiding my condition from the church community. It was my senior pastor who stood by me, who believed in grace and who believed in me. With his support, I finally decided to openly acknowledge my depression. I wrote an article for our church newsletter entitled, “The Burden of Silence.” My senior pastor wrote an accompanying article about the ignorance associated with mental illness. Our Parish Nurse set up an informational meeting on depression, and we had a turn-away crowd of over 130 people.

The religious community has much work to do to address the shame, guilt and stigma associated with mental illness. Unfortunately very few seminaries incorporate adequate information about mental illness in their core curriculum. A large percentage of individuals with a mental health issue go first to a spiritual leader for help. Yet studies show that clergy are the least effective in providing appropriate support and referral information.

 Creating Caring Congregations Model

After 13 years in the local church, I took a sabbatical leave and founded Mental Health Ministries in 2001. The mission of Mental Health Ministries is to provide educational resources to help erase the stigma of mental illness in our faith communities and help them become caring congregations for persons living with a mental illness and those who care for them.

Our first DVD, Creating Caring Congregations, is based on a resolution adopted in 1992 by the General Conference of the United Methodist Church. This resolution, which has been amended and readopted in both 2004 and 2012, calls upon local churches to be “Caring Communities” for persons living with a mental illness and those who love and care for them.

The five steps of the caring congregations include education, commitment, welcome, support and advocacy. These steps are not linear. Rather the process of becoming a caring congregation is dynamic and unique to each community.

  1.  Education.  Clergy and lay leaders need to educate themselves about mental illness, so they will be able to recognize the symptoms and make appropriate referrals to mental health professionals. This is often made more difficult because many clergy are hiding their own struggle with mental illness.
  1. Commitment.  This means that the church leadership commits to be intentional in seeking ways to become a caring congregation. It is often a concerned layperson who initiates this process because pastors are so overwhelmed with other responsibilities.
  1. Welcome. Seek ways to integrate persons with a mental illness into the life of the congregation. When we take the time to really get to know someone living with a mental illness, the barriers between “us” and “them” break down.
  1. Support. Christ calls us to bear each other’s burdens. Church members, including trained Stephen Ministers, can provide support and enable the church to be a “vessel of hope” for persons struggling in the darkness.
  1. Advocacy.  Mental illness is social justice issue involving such basic human rights such as access to medical care, stable and supportive housing. Once a congregation is educated about mental illness, they are in a position to partner and collaborate with community based groups.

There are a wide variety of print and media resources available on the Mental Health Ministries website, www.MentalHealthMinistries.net that congregations can use and adapt to fit the unique needs of their community. These resources include DVD’s and video clips, a four session resource/study guide, bulletin inserts, brochures, articles and worship ideas. All print resources can be downloaded on the Mental Health Ministries website. Many resources are available in Spanish.

Most all mental health outreach ministries begin small.  When seeds are sown, some take root and continue to grow in surprising ways.  When I first started sharing my story and connecting with faith communities, I never expected that Mental Health Ministries would evolve into a national ministry.

For me the most painful part of my illness was the feeling of disconnection. A supportive faith community would have helped me feel that I was connected to something bigger than my own feelings of worthless and hopelessness. A supportive faith community would have embraced my family. We would not have had to suffer in silence. I pray that the time will come when families living with a loved one with mental illness will be silent no more!

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