The dynamics of what happens in the family when a member is struck with any life altering illness, including mental illness, are important. Mental health professionals and support and advocacy groups have a variety of tools to use to assist the family in dealing with what has happened. Referring a family to a mental health professional and a support and advocacy group can be very beneficial to them in learning about mental illness and how to assist the person who is ill and themselves in managing it.
Getting the family to a helping professional or organization is of little value if they arrive too angry, confused or defensive to be able to listen or be helped. Family members who accept the referral out of compliance, or simply to please the pastor, other family members or friends, may still be closed to any assistance.
The minister must first foster an open and trusting relationship. Family members should be encouraged to share their feelings about the proposed referral. Objections and any feelings of rejections can then be identified. The pastor should make clear why the referral is being made. And the pastor should emphasize that he/she will continue to give spiritual support and guidance.
The goal of the referral is not to force an unwilling person(s) to spend a few minutes with someone who has expertise. The goal is to help the person(s) visit an additional source of information and resources with openness and hopefulness.
The family may be unwilling to accept the referral because of receiving inappropriate advice in the past. Listening to the family's prior experiences, if there are any, with the mental health system can help clarify objections and make it possible to work around them. Acknowledge the pain and frustration this may have caused. But also acknowledge that a pastor does not have all the technical answers the family may require or the skills to assist them in working out some of the problems the family may be experiencing and that is why they are being referred to other resources.
Reassure the family that this referral is not a rejection. The pastor will continue to be there to assist the family with theological and spiritual issues and to hear of any problems that they have encountered with other resources. Affirm that the church is a place that will always be there to be with the family as they work through their individual spiritual journeys. Encourage family members to give feedback about the receptivity and usefulness of the person, agency or support group. In this way everyone concerned will be able to evaluate if the referral has been helpful. If it is not, assist the family to find more appropriate resources.