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Wired For Connection

What can churches do to support mental health?

Mental health needs seem to be mushrooming all around us. Very soon depression will be the leading cause of disability in the Western world. Death by suicide is far too prevalent. The increase in crippling anxiety issues, especially among young people, is alarming. In a compelling recent report, Canada’s Chief Medical Officer estimates that one in three Canadians over the age of 15 has experienced some form of domestic violence. That’s a staggering nine million people. 

These statistics only begin to scratch the surface. And they don’t speak to the deep anguish and pain that people who experience mental health distress, and their loves ones, are going through, often all too silently.

It is well established that one in five people will experience a mental illness in their lifetime (many estimates say one in four). That means that 20 to 25 percent of the people in your congregation are, have been or will experience some form of significant mental health distress. 

What can churches do? Is there any hope? How can people of faith minister effectively when it comes to mental health?  

I believe that the answer is yes, there is hope. Churches can provide essential supports in the name of Christ. And in my view, given today’s mental health realities, doing so is core to the calling of the church in the 21st century.

We are all human
Does being a Christian exempt us from mental illness? No. Regardless of our faith, all of us are subject to the same relational, genetic and family pattern vulnerabilities. That is because we are all human.

As an indication, see Figure 1 (below) of presenting issues generated through Shalem Mental Health Network’s Congregational Assistance Plan (CAP). With CAP, a church provides for all its members up to six counselling sessions a year from a local, Master’s degree level Christian psychotherapist, anonymously and at no cost to the client. Strikingly, the presenting issues and their prevalence in this chart are identical to those of the general population in Canada – whether church-goers or not.

That means that as churches we can’t settle for cheap answers. We can’t say “come to Jesus and your mental illness will be over.” Or “just pray a little harder.” Nor can we ignore mental health. We need to root our ministry directions in a much deeper, more nuanced and powerful understanding of the healing that Christ brings.

There are many ways that churches can support mental health. Let’s consider a few.

 
  

Reduce stigma
Create safe spaces for real conversations about mental illness. Stigma remains a powerful impediment to recovery. Churches will want to give clear, explicit permission to have accepting, non-judgmental conversations about mental illness. Make it a priority and work at it.

A good place to start is a small group study series produced by the Christian Reformed Church called Let’s Talk (available from the denomination’s Disability Concerns office).

Become informed
Learn about mental health issues. Learn about the impact of sexual assault and the dynamics of post-traumatic stress disorder. Learn about depression, anxiety, suicide and self-harm, especially among young people. Have open conversations about grief and loss. Bring in a local Christian psychotherapist to give a workshop. Have several congregation members take “ASIST” training (Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training) – outstanding “mental health first aid” for suicide prevention.  

Support health for couples
Have open conversations, including from the pulpit, about strengthening couple relationships, in the context of the challenges that couples deal with. A good place to start is to have a congregation-wide reading of the book Created for Connection: The ‘Hold Me Tight’ Guide for Christian Couples, by Dr. Sue Johnson, and to actively promote “Hold Me Tight®” weekend retreats designed for couples. Shalem offers them regularly around Hamilton, Ontario. Numerous therapists offer these retreats across the country.

Minister to men
Thankfully, women’s ministry is often strong. Men’s, not so much. Men are in trouble today: the leading cause of death among men under 65 is suicide, and in mainstream society the group most at risk of suicide is white men over the age of 65. They are eight times more likely to die by suicide than women in that age bracket. The extraordinary courage of many women is now, at last, exposing the endemic nature of sexualized violence across today’s society. But where does that leave men, who themselves are sometimes victims of male violence? What is the deep despair underlying those awful statistics of suicide? Where are the role models for being a life-affirming man today? As a culture, we continue to work hard to separate men from their feelings. But churches can play a vital role in creating safe spaces for men to share their vulnerabilities with each other – and thereby reclaim their God-given capacity to stand against violence and bless the lives of others.

Support your Pastor
Your pastor is on the “front lines” of mental health crises. Please support your pastor. Often a pastor is alone in this. A small group of Christian psychotherapists can act as a sounding board for your pastor, and as support for the self-care that your pastor needs. Burn-out among pastors is much too high. And a cross-Canada survey by the Centre for Clergy Care found that pastors have twice the rate of depression as the general population.

Seventy churches from a variety of denominations are finding that the Congregational Assistance Plan (CAP) – offering Christian psychotherapy support to anyone in the congregation – can be one powerful way of helping to achieve the steps outlined above. CAP is available across Canada. Shalem contracts with over 150 Christian psychotherapists in many locations to deliver CAP (shalemnetwork.org).

There is hope! 
There is hope in relation to mental health. That hope is rooted in God. Neuroscience is clear that our Creator has literally wired us for connection. And the evidence is clear that connection is the most powerful factor in recovery. When we listen without judgment or giving advice, when we walk alongside people on their journey, we literally sculpt each other’s brains towards healing. That is part of how Jesus blesses with his healing. What a powerful foundation for effective church ministry!  

  • Mark is the Executive Director of the Shalem Mental Health Network (shalemnetwork.org).

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