- Assess for risk of suicide or harm
- Listen nonjudgmentally
- Give assistance and information
- Encourage appropriate professional help
- Encourage self-help and other support
Smith cautions pastors against some don’ts in the realm of mental health, in addition to the dos. She tells them to avoid stigmatizing or shaming the individual: “shame is totally not productive.”
According to Smith, research shows that individuals struggling with mental health issues do better with the love and support of their communities. That’s why she offers her course to both church leaders and to entire congregations.
Another suggestion for pastors hoping to learn more about these issues? Talk with the therapists and licensed counselors in their own congregations, says Hoefs: “They [pastors] could learn so much.”
What mental illness offers the church
The church has an important role to play in helping those with mental health issues, and those who do suffer from these issues offer something to the church. They offer their own gifts and experiences, and they offer a chance for radical ministry.
Stanford, like others, is worried that, out of fear, the church will fail to be a place of hope and healing on this issue: “I think the real risk is we’re going to miss it—going to miss the opportunity to help a lot of people who have been broken by life circumstances.”
A major fear that could hold pastors back from engaging is that individuals with mental illness are more violent. That’s a mistaken notion, says Amy Simpson. “Most people with mental illness are not more violent than the rest of us; they’re actually more vulnerable than the rest of us.”
Simpson has been writing about the intersection of faith and mental health for years, and her own life has been profoundly shaped by witnessing her own mother’s struggles with schizophrenia. She is passionate about the good churches and faith leaders can do in mental health ministry and support.
To her, churches’ efforts to minister in this area don’t have to be an undue burden. “It doesn’t take a degree in psychology to walk alongside somebody,” she says, and it “doesn’t have to be a ministry that is added to the plate of a senior pastor . . . or a member of the church staff.” Instead, churches could have individuals versed in mental health issues—or who are stable in their own mental health struggles—leading mental health ministries. Many such ministry models already exist. (Note: Further resources are listed at the end of this article.)
Simpson and others want pastors to recognize that because so many people—even the non-religious—are more likely to turn to pastors for help in this area, pastors really are a vital part of the mental health care system already. To bear that role responsibly, Simpson encourages pastors to “connect with others in that system. Form partnerships, create a list of resources in your area, go to community events, go to a NAMI [National Alliance on Mental Illness] seminar.”
Basic training in mental health issues, like mental health first aid, can be acquired easily: Stanford says that training in recognizing symptoms and giving appropriate referrals can be given to pastors “in just a couple of hours.” And if you’re a pastor who is providing counseling, you might consider another recommendation from Simpson: asking that person to sign a release form allowing you to access information from the mental health provider in order for you to partner in this person’s care.
In other words, pastors should be prepared for the serious and sacred duty that they have in this arena because, says Simpson, “you are a first responder, whether you know it or not.”
“[U]ltimately it’s up to [pastors] to say, ‘I’m going to bypass my fear,’” Stanford says, and move on to minister to those with mental health struggles.
Hoefs agrees. “The church has to develop a theology that overcomes the stigma and fear and perceived risks,” he explains. “Churches will become irrelevant if they don’t learn to help broken people.”
The following resources can help you go deeper on mental health issues and on effective ways to minister to those suffering from mental illness.
- Our sister site SmallGroups.com has a new resource, How to Respond to Mental Illness.
- Dr. Matt Stanford serves as CEO of the Hope & Healing Center. Dr. Stanford’s book is available here.
- Fresh Hope for Mental Health is Brad Hoefs’s organization and where you can find Brad’s book.
- Hope4MentalHealth.com is Rick and Kay Warren’s website and a project of Saddleback Church.
- Minds Renewed is a national mental health ministry working primarily through the internet. Judy Smith is a board member.
- Amy Simpson’s books can be found on her website.
- “Study of Acute Mental Illness and Christian Faith” is a report by Lifeway Research.
- The National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) is “the nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization dedicated to building better lives for the millions of Americans affected by mental illness.”
- MentalHealth.gov has many resources and training tools available.
- Mental Health First Aid provides “an 8-hour course that teaches you how to identify, understand and respond to signs of mental illnesses and substance use disorders.”
Samuel Ogles is Associate Editor and Special Project Manager for Church Law & Tax.
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