An important step for any church seeking to minister to those affected by mental illness is to establish a culture that explicitly grants permission for mental health to be a topic of conversation.
LifeWay Research's “Study of Acute Mental Illness and Christian Faith” observed that when family members were asked what local churches should do to assist them in supporting loved ones with mental illness, their number one response was, "Talk about it openly so that the topic is not so taboo." In the very same survey, nearly half of all pastors reported they "rarely" or "never" speak of mental illness during worship services. Nearly two-thirds of pastors speak of mental illness once a year or less. Another important finding was that 55 percent of U.S. adults surveyed who don't regularly attend church disagreed with the statement, "If I had a mental health issue, I believe most churches would welcome me."
The words and teaching that emanate from the pulpit and are propagated through a church’s online platforms can either perpetuate or eradicate stigma. One component of an effective inclusion strategy for persons with mental illness is developing a church-wide communication plan for mental health related topics. Here are five action items for pastors and other members of the leadership team to consider in crafting such a strategy:
1. Preach it from the pulpit
The results of the Lifeway study suggest the most powerful way your church can communicate acceptance of kids and adults with mental health conditions is to address the topic in the context of your pastor's teaching at weekend worship services. Some pastors, including Rick Warren, are able to use their personal experiences or family experiences in talking about mental illness. Others will draw from their pastoral experience. When the senior pastor is comfortable addressing mental illness from the pulpit, the congregation has permission to talk about it.
2. Remind your members, regular attenders, and visitors of the support your church offers
Does your church provide counseling services, support groups, respite care, or other types of assistance to individuals and families affected by mental illness? Would someone who attends worship services weekly know about the help available through the church? What about a first-time visitor? What about someone searching for a church who lands on the home page of your website?
3. The more persons with mental illnesses can see, hear, and experience your ministry environments online, the better
Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health condition among adults in the U.S. and represent either the most or second most common category of mental health conditions experienced by children and teens. A fundamental difference in brain function observed among persons with anxiety disorders is a propensity to overestimate the degree of danger or risk in unfamiliar environments or situations. The more information and preparation they have in advance of a new situation, the greater the likelihood they can overcome fear and take part in the experience. This principle applies to potential first-time visitors to a worship service, as well as to children and adults established in the church considering a new experience—an overnight retreat, small groups, service activities, or mission trips.
4. Use your church’s social media platforms to pass along mental health-related links and posts for attendees to share with friends and neighbors
Many excellent ministries and organizations provide mental health resources and support from a Christian worldview. Utilizing your social media platforms to share articles and posts from reputable Christian organizations addressing mental health concerns provides an easy way for your people to let their friends and neighbors affected by mental illness know that they are welcome at your church. It is also a tool for engaging your members in the church’s mental health inclusion efforts.
5. Consider how your church can use online resources to promote offline connections with the people of your church
Many churches live stream their worship services so that members unable to attend due to illness or distance can share in the experience. Social isolation is a common barrier to church involvement for individuals and families affected by mental illness. Have you considered how your church might be introduced to persons in your region with mental health related challenges? You can train hosts to connect through a chat component with those who engage online or respond to the comments section on social media platforms.
In summary, your church’s worship services, website, and social media platforms are powerful tools in any mental health inclusion strategy. Be strategic in making the most of them in any plan.