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What can the church do?
Is there a role for the church in walking alongside people living with mental illness? The answer is a resounding YES! Studies show when people are struggling with mental illness the first place they call is the church. There is hope for mental illness.
Most people understand that mental illness is just that — an illness — and as such, often requires medication and treatment by mental health professionals for management and improved health. But the flip side of that realization can lead us to believe that there is nothing significant the faith community can offer to a person with an illness. This is a misperception! In reality, the church is tasked with caring for the whole person — body, mind, and soul — and that means we must recognize and care for a person with an illness. The church can speak into the soul and personhood of the individual in ways that medical professionals cannot.
A Church-Initiated Mental Health Strategy
Saddleback has created a Church-Initiated Mental Health Strategy that can be built over time, adapted, and implemented into all areas of ministries in any church. Start small and gradually expand.It is helpful to look at building a mental health ministry through the stages of crawl, walk, and run.
- Refer to mental illness within sermons
- Within weekend services pray for people who are living with mental illness and their families
- Invite people who are living with mental illness to share their testimony in a church service
- Equip people for ministry by reading The Purpose Driven Life
- Study God’s plan for every member to be involved in caring for the sick in a tangible way
- Give your congregation a survey that asks them questions related to mental health
- Provide a referral list of mental health resources available in your community (NAMI, 2-1-1, 1-800-273-TALK)
- Educate and raise awareness in your congregation by inviting mental health professionals to speak about mental illness
- Provide space for free NAMI support groups to meet at your church
- Take a meal to someone newly diagnosed with mental illness
- Befriend someone living with mental illness – go to a movie together or get a cup of coffee
- Give hope to people who are mentally ill by providing encouraging connections: call, text, e-mails, letters, etc.
Walk steps require some training and minimal financial support. There is a greater level of commitment, but most churches can take these steps.
- Preach sermons specifically about mental illness
- Start mental health specific ministries such as support groups for adults and youth
- Start a Celebrate Recovery ®
- Create care teams of three or four individuals who will commit to an on-going relationship to an individual or family to help with basic needs (helping with household tasks, transportation to doctor visits, basic home repairs, etc.)
- Train volunteers to be “companions” during a church service to anyone appearing distressed, depressed, or lonely
- Regularly connect your church members in opportunities to serve
- Help connect people in your congregation who have similar mental health challenges (with their permission)
- Build a mental health library with books and resources available
- Use local mental health professionals to offer frequent educational meetings for your staff, volunteers, and parents
Run steps require a higher level of commitment, more extensive training, financial support, and trained church staff. Some churches can take these steps.
- Integrate mental health into existing ministries within the church
- Develop a lay counseling ministry
- Hold mental health support groups for children
- Create a mental health safe place where people who are living with mental illness can come and find comfort and support
- Provide staff with more advanced mental health care training
- Create care teams of three or four individuals who will commit to an on-going relationship to an individual or family to help with mental health needs (Assist in making connections to resources, programs and professionals who might be helpful to their specific needs––advocate for them in a holistic way)
- Establish serving opportunities for people living with severe mental illness
- Partner together with a mental health organization in your community to provide services such as a PEACE Center, mental health clinic, and therapeutic support groups
- Hold a mental health ministry event; host a one-day mental health conference
- Build a team of volunteers who can help others in your community to become involved in caring for people living with mental illness and their families
- Become a model of what every church can do about mental illness by being a reliable source of information about mental illness
This strategy is built on an acrostic
Care for people living with mental illness and their families
Every church, no matter the size or location, can make an intentional and deliberate decision to become a caring and compassionate sanctuary for those living with mental illness and their families. Often people living with mental illness feel excluded from their biological family for a variety of reasons; their suffering is compounded when they are also excluded from the warmth of the fellowship of the Body of Christ – sometimes overtly, but more often than not, by unawareness or neglect. Frequently the excuse, “But we’re not a large church; we don’t have a lot of resources” is used to justify a lack of care and support for the mentally ill. However, no money, resources or training are required to have a heart of compassion like our Savior. Yes, there is a cost to caring – it requires us to let go of self-centeredness, ignorance, fear and apathy and move towards our brothers and sisters with arms extended in radical friendship and love.C
Help with the basic needs of people living with mental illness and their families
Because we have a mandate from God to care for the physical, spiritual, and emotional needs of people, every church must become intentional about ministering to those living with mental illness in tangible ways. Mental illness is often referred to the “no casserole” illness. Most congregations provide for the practical needs of individuals and families who have ongoing medical issues or who are experiencing life transitions such as moving, a job loss, or pregnancy or death of a loved one. In a similar way, church volunteers can show up in the lives of those living with mental illness by providing meals, helping with household chores, and offering rides to doctor’s appointments. Meeting practical needs does not need to cost money. By offering a little spare time, and commitment, these actions speak volumes to those who often feel lonely and forgotten.H
According to the Bible every church member is a minister. Jesus calls each of His followers to care for the sick. This includes people living with mental illness. Every church can train and mobilize members to become safe people who effectively care for and help people living with mental illness. There will never be enough mental health professionals in the world to offer care, treatment and support to those who need it. Churches have the largest built-in volunteer base on the planet—more than two billion members. What an impact we can make if this enormous pool of unengaged talent, energy, and compassion can be mobilized to support those living with mental illness and their families!U
Remove the stigma surrounding mental illness
The stigma surrounding mental illness is profound and deeply ingrained in the culture and even the church. Those living with severe mental illness often bear the brunt of society’s stigmatizing attitude of exclusion, fear, and disgust. Not only is that unbiblical and unkind––it can be lethal. When those living with mental illness believe they have to hide their illness from their loved ones or church family for fear of being ostracized or abandoned, it can keep them from seeking the treatment they need, leading to a worsening of their symptoms, and even to despair. One of the most powerful gifts the church can give to mentally ill people is acceptance as equal members of Christ’s Body, worthy of respect and honored as fully integrated contributors to the life of the church. How much money does it require to eliminate stigma? None. How many paid staff members does it take to remove the barriers to acceptance? Perhaps just one––the pastor who decides to knock down the wall of stigma one sermon at a time. It is not a sin to be sick.R
Collaborate with the community
Because we are whole beings, a person living with mental illness needs therapeutic, emotional, physical, relational and spiritual support in order to adequately manage their illness. You can’t approach mental illness from only one dimension. Seeing a psychiatrist without also receiving spiritual support can leave some problems unaddressed. Trying to faithfully take medication while homeless on the street will probably not be very successful. Being in a support group without also attempting to reconcile broken family relationships can hinder growth. Those living with mental illness need assistance on every level.
The church is a necessary part of holistic care, but it can’t do it all. Churches CAN build a resource list of mental health professionals, treatment programs, food banks, housing referrals, hospitals, and job training to help people in time of crisis or a mental health emergency. Churches can easily point people to outside organizations, such as NAMI (National Alliance of Mental Illness), who have free or low cost mental health programs if the church does not yet have a robust mental health ministry. Another avenue of collaboration is to invite mental health professionals and mental health organizations to inform and educate your congregation about mental illness. Holistic mental health care requires partnerships in order to meet the needs of individuals in a comprehensive way.C
With Jesus Christ as our Wounded Healer, the church can offer something that no one else can: HOPE. It’s not necessarily the responsibility of the government or even the medical community to offer hope, but it is the responsibility of the church of Jesus Christ. Often people who live with severe mental illness end up alienated from their family and friends, leaving them vulnerable to homelessness, substance abuse, crime, and suicide. Anyone living with mental illness may feel like there is truly nowhere left to go, no one who cares whether they live or die. For many, the church is their last hope. And even though we as the church stumble and fail to live up to our good intentions at times, this is where we can excel. Through the promises of God, we know how to offer hope not only for this life, but for the life to come. We know how to share these foundational truths that can lead hurting people towards hope: you are loved, you have a purpose, you belong, you have a choice, and you are needed.H
Hope for mental health ministry starter kit
- Hope for Mental Health Pastor’s DVD
- Hope for Mental Health Sermon CD
- Anchored: Student Ministries Mental Health Weekend Services DVD
- Mental Health Resource Guide for individuals and Families
- Stories of Hope Testimony DVD
- Journey Toward Hope: A Guided Experience
- Hope for Mental Health Resource Flash Drive