The church struggles to meet the needs of persons with mental illness. LifeWay Research published a detailed study depicting the unmet ministry needs of adults with mental illness, and recently published research demonstrates that families of children and teens with common mental health conditions (depression, anxiety disorders, ADHD, and Oppositional Defiant Disorder) are significantly less likely than their neighbors to ever set foot in a church.
So, what advice would you give a friend or family member in another city searching for a church for a loved one with a significant mental health condition? And how might we identify what’s called “a mental health-informed church”?
What is a mental health-informed church?
Finding a church well-equipped to minister with someone with mental health concerns is challenging. The need for mental health-informed churches is critical, especially if we are to minister effectively with individuals hurt by past experiences. A Baylor University study noted that three of 10 attendees who approached their church for help related to a mental health condition for themselves or a family member reported negative interactions counterproductive to treatment. For one in eight who approached their church for help, the experience was so distressing that it resulted in them leaving the church for good. This isn’t how it should be.
Instead, in a mental health-informed church, persons serving in leadership positions would recognize signs and symptoms of common mental health conditions. Pastors and ministry leaders would be aware of the effects of mental illness on church attendance, ministry participation, and spiritual development for children, teens, adults, and families. They would be equipped with a basic knowledge of mental health treatments and be familiar with facilities, clinics, and professionals in their communities qualified to provide needed care to church members and attendees. They would appreciate the effects of mental illness on work, school, family life, and social relationships and tangibly share the gospel through responding to the most heartfelt needs of individuals and families affected.
5 marks of mental health-informed church
Returning to our original question, how would someone go about finding a church prepared to minister effectively with an individual or family member with mental health concerns? Here are five marks our ministry team would include for identifying mental health-informed churches. Any church characterized by all five marks would almost certainly develop a reputation as a place where children and adults with mental health concerns will be cared for and valued.
- Intentional planning: Leadership can demonstrate an intentional planning process for outreach to children and adults affected by mental illness and plans for including them in the full range of worship experiences and ministry activities offered by the church. The mental health ministry model developed by Key Ministry, however, intentionally avoids the creation of new programs that may compete for volunteers and resources with established ministries and departments. Special programs or stand-alone ministries don’t usually work because most persons with mental illness will flee activities or programming that draws attention to them or causes them to feel singled-out for their differences. The goal of an effective mental health outreach and inclusion strategy, therefore, should be to involve individuals and families in the activities and experiences already offered by the local church that win people to Christ and make disciples.
- Education opportunities: The church provides opportunities for pastors, deacons/elders, ministry leaders, key volunteers, members, and attendees to become better educated about the effects of common mental health conditions in children and adults. This might take the form of mental health first aid training or becoming a trauma-informed congregation. Other options might include training for pastors and ministry leaders that helps them recognize challenges to church participation and spiritual growth, and increases awareness of the care and support needs of individuals and families affected by mental illness.
- Communication strategy: The church develops and implements a mental health communication strategy. In the LifeWay study, family members reported one of the most valuable supports their church could provide was for pastors and other leaders to talk regularly about mental illness so that existing stigma is diminished. Ed Stetzer reported findings of a related study in which a majority of unchurched adults disagreed with the opinion that churches would welcome them if they had a mental health issue. In light of this, changing communication regarding the church and mental health concerns is a precondition for effective outreach.
- Practical help: The church offers practical help to individuals and families affected by mental illness. Mental illness is often referred to as the “no casserole” disability. If your church provides food to families when a child gets admitted to the hospital with a broken leg, would they get a casserole if their child were admitted to a psychiatric hospital following a suicide attempt? Does your church maintain a current list of mental health practitioners and resources for members and attendees in need? Furthermore, more and more churches are offering respite care to families of kids with disabilities, including mental health disabilities.
- Support groups: The church sponsors or hosts mental health-specific education and support groups. For example, The Grace Alliance was launched by a Baptist pastor and a Baylor neuropsychology professor and offers small group models for individuals, families, and college students. Fresh Hope is another ministry with a national network of churches offering peer-led mental health support groups for adults, teens, and incarcerated persons.
These five marks are the fruits of a well-conceived mental health outreach and inclusion strategy and represent an ambitious goal to which churches might aspire. While your church might lack the resources to attain all of the marks, every church can do more than they are doing now to share the gospel with the children, adults, and families affected by mental illness and to include them in the life of the local church.