Mental health is not often a public topic of conversation—or even a private one. That avoidance appears to be just as prevalent, if not more so, in church settings. In recent years, however, a plethora of research has shown that mental health issues are more common than one might think, cutting across gender, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, it’s estimated that almost one in five Americans suffer from some form of mental illness each year.
As churches become increasingly aware of the widespread and serious nature of mental illness, church leaders may wonder how they should engage mental health ministry in the church—and what legal risks they may face in doing so.
The most important mental health case to date
Lisa Runquist, an attorney specializing in nonprofit law, has researched the issue of liability for churches that have chosen to counsel individuals with mental health issues.
For Runquist, the most important court case regarding churches and counseling came in 1988 when a lawsuit—Nally v. Grace Community Church of the Valley—was ultimately decided by the Supreme Court of California. An individual, Kenneth Nally, had sought help from counseling through Grace Community Church of the Valley and later committed suicide. Nally’s parents then brought a wrongful death action lawsuit against the church and four church pastors, alleging “clergyman malpractice” (negligence in failing to prevent the suicide).