Facilitating Education and Care
People with general worries and concerns often first approach their faith leader who ministers to the whole person—body, mind and spirit. People experiencing mental health concerns and emotional crisis most often seek out the faith leaders first. Because one in four persons in a faith community experience a mental illness, the faith leaders must be educated about mental illness, and prepared to minister to persons with mental health concerns and their families. The faith leader’s role in providing mental health care has often not been recognized by mental health professionals. But Pathways to Promise and other national organizations have witnessed and participated in a growing awareness of the faith leader’s role and a growing collaboration between faith leaders and mental health care providers.
When faith leaders are asked if they address the subject of mental illness in their community, the majority say they never mention it. If 25% of the community experiences mental illness in some form, then it should be openly acknowledged and addressed by faith communities.
Education: Faith leaders can be a catalyst in a faith community for educating their members about mental illness. Periodically invite mental health professionals to share information in adult education or to provide training to other leaders in the faith community, including small group leaders.
Worship: Mention mental illness in the worship setting. Physical ailments are often mentioned in public prayers; however, people with mental illness are rarely mentioned. People may want to keep their identity confidential, yet a general prayer for people living with depression or mental illness can deeply minister to them. Acknowledgement that mental illness may be present in the congregation, may allow someone to approach the faith leader for pastoral care. Create a culture in your congregation where brokenness and vulnerability are natural and accepted. Mention mental illness in your public messages.
Language: The language used in referencing persons with mental illness can reinforce harmful stereotypes or dehumanize people with an illness or disability. Language can communicate respect and dignity for persons with mental illness. The common guideline is to use “people first” language—the basic idea is to mention the person first and then the condition to emphasize that “they are people first.” Use “persons with mental illness” rather than “the mentally ill.” In addition, refrain from using damaging stereotyped language such as “crazy,” “insane,” “psycho” or other demeaning terms in referring to persons with mental illness or in general language, i.e. “I’m going crazy.”
Pastoral care: You may have referred someone to a mental health professional, but the person still needs pastoral care and spiritual support from the faith leader. The professional may not be able to address some of the spiritual questions that arise. People may wrestle with what to say to someone who has a mental illness. The most helpful statement is: Help me understand what you are experiencing. Let the person be your teacher. Each experience of mental illness is unique to that person.
As you visit, radiate acceptance. Persons with mental illness may experience bouts of self-doubt, self-blame, and self-loathing. They may question God’s presence, God’s purpose and God’s plan. They may question whether they are to blame for this occurrence of mental illness. As you communicate acceptance for wherever they are at in their illness, you give witness to the tenacious love and acceptance of God, and the presence of God with them. Your presence is often more important than neat theological answers to troubling questions.
“A Christian [or other faith] leader who refuses to abandon a family in crisis may be a powerful symbol of the truth that God has not abandoned them either. Make yourself obviously and consistently available, even if it’s not clear what you can do to help.” (Amy Simpson, 185)
Faith leaders and the person: If a person appears to have a mental health problem that is seriously impairing his/her ability to carry out the ordinary functions of daily life, faith leaders may feel overwhelmed and ill-equipped in dealing with the situation. Sometimes faith leaders distance themselves from people with mental illness because they realize the problem can be long term. To become involved with this person may mean a lengthy commitment. Perhaps this person will never be cured. Such a problem is contrary to contemporary Western ideas of being in control of one’s life and destiny. People in modern day America expect to find a rational solution to any problem. And yet, in this case, there may be no solution. It is tempting, if an answer is not apparent, to avoid the person for whom one has no answers.
Some mental health problems, particularly those that involve a serious mental illness, need the skills of a mental health professional. This does not mean that faith leaders cannot help the person with his/her spiritual crisis. It does mean that if the person is not seeing a mental health professional, it is imperative to refer the person for additional assistance. Faith leaders can continue to play a supportive role through prayer, being with the person, listening with compassion to the person’s story, and supporting the person if they are in therapy and/or participating in a rehabilitation or support program. Often the faith leader’s support and encouragement can be the critical component in assisting a person to comply with a treatment plan. Faith leaders should try to find avenues to develop a working relationship with the person that allows him/her to make the appropriate referral and at the same time keep the faith leaders engaged, if possible, with the person to attend to their spiritual needs.
You might hesitate to become involved with people with a mental illness because you may not know what to say or how to help, or you may be tempted to distance yourself from them because it may mean a long term commitment. Perhaps they will never be cured. There may be no obvious solution to their crisis. It is tempting, if an answer is not apparent, to avoid them. Know your boundaries and discover meaningful and appropriate ways to give care.
Empower others to care: As you educate the congregation, they will have an increased understanding of mental illness and compassion for someone with a mental illness. Empowering members of your community to support and encourage families and their loved ones will broaden their base of support so that you are not the sole encourager. Pathways to Promise has a brief training program called Companionship Training which trains communities to come along side of individuals. Companionship includes listening, sharing the journey with a person side-by-side, neighboring (acknowledging our common humanity), providing hospitality, and helping develop a “circle of care.” The booklet series and describes how to develop and nurture these vital practices of companionship.
Gifts to serve: Persons with mental illness have gifts and abilities, and they can make meaningful and significant contributions to the religious community. Using their gifts solidifies their connection to the religious community. Assist them in identifying their gifts and where they can use them. However, there may be periods of time when they need to temporarily cut back or stop their service because of their illness. Let them be part of the decision process in determining what should be done. One woman with schizophrenia was trained extensively to be a caregiver in her church. People accepted her and valued her warm caring spirit. Yet when she moved to another church and they discovered she had a mental illness, she could no longer serve in a caregiving capacity. In another church, a man served as a trumpeter regularly in worship. His gifts were valued by the whole congregation. A good guiding principle is the motto of one organization: “Everybody belongs, everybody serves” (CRCNA Disability Concerns).
Helpful Resources and References
Albers, Robert H., William H. Meller and Steven D. Thurber, eds. Ministry with Persons with Mental Illness and Their Families, Fortress Press, 2012.
Simpson, Amy. Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission, IVP Books, 2013.