By Sarah Rainer
One in five people in your church will suffer from mental illness in their lifetime.
You will have few people who have not been directly or indirectly impacted by mental health issues. With so many individuals impacted, church leaders need basic knowledge to handle these issues effectively.
Church leaders do not need to be experts in psychological functioning, but they do need some basic knowledge in order to offer support to individuals struggling in the church. Here are seven basic pointers that every church leader should consider when dealing with mental health issues:
- Do Not Judge. Judgement, and even well-intended religious statements (“You just need to pray more.”), will further isolate those with mental illness and potentially exacerbate their struggles. Try meeting these individuals with compassion and a listening ear. Church leaders do not need all the answers in order to be supportive. “More listening, less talking” is a good motto.
- Read and Research. Although most church leaders are not in a position to treat mental illness, they do need to have basic knowledge of mental health disorders and diseases. Why? Many struggling individuals may first seek help among their church leaders. It is important to recognize when church members’ struggles are related to mental health issues so that church leadership can help them find adequate support and treatment. Reading books and magazines can improve one’s knowledge base regarding mental health issues. I suggest Dibs in Search of Self by Virginia Axeline, Blame it on the Brain by Ed Welch, and A Child Called It by Dave Pelzer. Websites, like the National Alliance on Mental Illness (www.nami.org), also provide great information regarding mental health.
- Refer Out. Church leaders are not typically trained to treat mental illness; it is simply not their job. When church members demonstrate mental health issues, leaders should offer compassion and support, but also provide them with proper referrals for treatment. Generate a referral list and utilize when needed.
- Stop the Stigma. Stigma regarding mental illness still exists in both our country and our churches. As church leaders, there are simple ways to help reduce that stigma, including:
- Avoid offensive language (i.e. words and phrases involving psycho, crazy, they are nuts, etc.).
- Discuss mental health issues from the pulpit and in leadership meetings.
- Use the church bulletin to feature mental health topics and supportive resources.
- Acknowledge that mental health issues are complex in nature and involve biological, psychological, developmental, societal, spiritual, and familial components.
- Recognize Complexity. Although I believe all diseases and disorders are a result of humanity’s fall, I do not believe all diseases and disorders are direct results from one’s own sinful nature. To categorize mental illness as simply a spiritual issue is to ignore the beautiful complexity of which were are designed. There may be some instances in which mental illness is a direct result of one’s spiritual life. We should, however, not assume everyone fits into this category. Mental health issues are typically a combination of psychological, biological, developmental, societal, spiritual, and familial issues. Infant depression, schizophrenia, and Autism Spectrum Disorders are great examples of complex mental health issues.
- Understand the Impact on Family and Friends. Not all victims of mental illness are individuals with a diagnosable condition. Family and friends of individuals with mental illness often struggle with helping their loved one. Be careful what you say, offer support, and pray for them too.
- Care for Personal Mental Health. Last, but certainly not least, church leaders should take care of their own mental health. Leading a church can be a stressful position, and stress alone can lead to physical and mental deterioration. Church leaders should have adequate support, take time to relax, and reach out for support if they are struggling. Remember, it is okay to say “no” to requests for additional work. If church leaders are suffering, so will their ministries.
A basic knowledge and awareness of mental health issues is essential in churches today. How have you handled mental health cases in your church and ministry in the past? How can you improve in the future?