The church does not speak enough about mental illness. It’s a significant issue that remains largely silent in most churches. The church can do more. The church should do more. Research reveals that 65% of family members in a household of someone with acute mental illness believe the church should talk more openly about the subject so the topic will not be taboo. Yet two-thirds of pastors rarely or never highlight mental illness in their sermons or large-group gatherings.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness has done research demonstrating the prevalence of mental illness in the United States. Approximately 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. experiences mental illness in a given year. Approximately 1 in 25 adults in the U.S. experiences a serious mental illness in a given year that substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities.
The median church has about 75 people attending every week. If you are a member of a typical church, then about 15 people will experience some form of mental illness in a given year. If your church is larger, let’s say 300 people, then it is likely that about 60 people will experience some form of mental illness a year.
As a church leader, you know that a significant portion of your congregation will deal with mental illness. Given the prevalence of the problem, churches of every size, every denomination, and all geographic locations will likely be affected. Take a moment and reflect. The issue of mental illness is probably affecting people in your congregation right now. Some pastors struggle with mental illness. Individuals are hurting. Their family members and friends are hurting with them. As a leader in your congregation, you have the responsibility to connect the ministry of the body with those in the body dealing with mental illness.
What You Can Do about Mental Illness
The church is well-positioned to be a vital part of the solution to the problem of mental illness. The local church is the first place many people turn to when suffering from mental illness. What can you do? How can you lead your church?
1. Remove the “taboo” label. Silence often creates a perception that something is off-limits. Lead your church with language. The church should become the place where the shame of mental illness crumbles. Those affected by mental illness want their churches to speak more often about it. Mental illness does not signal a lack of faith any more than contracting cancer signals a lack of faith. Speak candidly and with compassion. When you address the issue out loud, many taboo perceptions go away.
2. Understand the warning signs. Since such a wide variety of mental illnesses exists, a comprehensive list of symptoms does not exist. However, there are warning signs. Take note of extreme mood changes on a regular basis. Any substance abuse is an indicator something is wrong. An inability to complete daily tasks, routines, and work are also warning signs.
3. Maintain a trusted network of professionals. No pastor can do it all. No church leader is trained for every potential illness. The church staff should not attempt to handle every case. Some mental illnesses require help from people with proper training. Pastors and church leaders should have a list of professionals they trust for referrals. It’s dangerous to believe you can deal with every type of mental illness. It’s equally as dangerous to make referrals without knowing the professional.
4. Create a clear system of reporting procedures. If someone starts discussing suicide, do your leaders know what to do? Is the staff aware of what hotlines to call if necessary? More than twice as many people die from suicide every year than by homicide. More women attempt suicide, but men are more likely to use deadlier methods. Everyone in your church should know it’s judicious to call 911 if they believe someone is at risk.
5. Recognize the spiritual struggle of mental illness. The world is fallen. People are broken. While science has enabled us to understand better and treat mental illness, the suffering is ultimately rooted in a spiritual struggle. Quoting Scripture out of context or offering silly clichés (“It’s simply God’s will”) does not help anyone. However, Scripture does demonstrate how we are to show compassion: pray, listen, comfort, and be willing to serve. One of the best ways churches can help is by filling in the gaps for hurting families: running errands, babysitting children, and providing meals. The Good Samaritan was willing to take on inconveniences to serve a hurting man. The church should do the same for those suffering from mental illness.
6. Be ready to minister long-term. The problem of mental illness will not be solved with quick fixes. People who have mental illness could be in for a long-term battle. The church must be ready to walk with people for months, if not years. Not every church may have the ability to create an ongoing counseling ministry, but every church can do something. Group leaders can be trained on the warning signs of mental illness. Staff can be ready with a network of trusted professionals. And everyone can serve someone walking down the difficult road of mental illness. Unfortunately, too many feel as if they are walking alone. The least the church can do is come alongside someone and walk with them, however long that walk may be.
Silence is not an option. Apathy is sinful. The problem of mental illness is a significant one, and the church has been far too quiet in addressing the issue. The likelihood is that several in your church may be suffering today, which means now is the time to act.
Posted on April 6, 2022
As President of Church Answers, Sam Rainer wears many hats. From podcast co-host to full-time Pastor at West Bradenton Baptist Church, Sam’s heart for ministry and revitalization are evident in all he does.
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Do you have any good resources for setting up a sermon series on Mental Health?
Excellent and timely, especially with the rise in mental illness from the pandemic. Your first point is the starting place. Talk about it and remove the taboo. Where I live, I have observed younger pastors talking about their own struggles with depression. I, too, have shared my struggles with my people and have found that it opened the door to many conversations and opportunities for pastoral care.
Many of the great spiritual giants from history battled depression. We should humanize and, to a degree, normalize the condition. Spiritual leaders/pastors need to do better. When I have shared my past struggles with depression in pastor fellowship meetings, it got awkward. I felt shame. We are getting better but we need to do better.
Thanks for this.
Thank you for posting an article on this very important topic of caring for our communities and the body of Christ!
Sam, thank you for the article. I agree with your assertions. Out of curiosity, though, what do you think is the best way to define mental illness? Also, do you think that problems that fall under the umbrella of mental illness always have a spiritual component to them that needs to be addressed? If so, why? If not, why not? Thank you again!
Not Sam but I’ll weigh in. I think a better way to define mental illness is to allow professionals who assess and qualify mental illness to define the condition. As a minister, I am not qualified or trained to make those assessments. I imagine most ministers are not trained to diagnose mental illness.
On one level, there is always a spiritual component to mental illness. Not specifically as a cause, but because the illness impacts a spiritual person there is a spiritual component. I’m reluctant to assign mental illness to a person’s sin, not any more than I assign an inherited physical trait to personal sin.
Les, you said it best. Thank you!
Good article. Thanks for sharing! My church has a mental health day every year in March. We call it “Care Day.” In the afternoon/evening, we have breakout sessions led by local professionals. They cover the following topics: anxiety, adhd, depression, trauma, addiction recovery, grief and loss, dementia and more. This one day event is open to those in our church family and to the community.
That’s a great idea!
It’s always a pleasure and a blessing to be part of your teaching and programs.. Your teaching are really awesome and good…
Great article Sam,
Ministering to people with mental illness whether it be acute or chronic has most certainly been a weak area in the church. It is a subject I’ve raised in board meetings, not that I’m any expert, where I’ve given the reminder that we are dealing with people and to not dehumanize them because of their condition. There are numerous causes, some organic, some due to trauma or other conditions but the bottom line is each situation involves a real person deserving of dignity, love and for as many as possible, freedom. There is a tendency, perhaps due to live streaming, to insist the Sunday morning service be pristine and the perception by unseen people watching in their pajamas (no insult to shut ins) over people who actually show up take precedence. I’m ok with unplugging the camera. Thank you for raising awareness on this important topic.
Thank you for reading, Dave.