The Compassion, Peace & Justice Ministry within the Presbyterian Mission Agency (PMA) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is facilitating the implementation of their mental health initiative and recently shared their survey findings.
The survey found the top two mental health barriers for members, church leaders, and mid-council leaders were “not knowing how to respond to an individual showing signs of a mental health condition” and “lack of knowledge about mental health issues.” These responses are not uncommon in faith communities as many do not know how to respond to mental illness, both from a lack of knowledge and misperceptions.
Life coach Stacy Caprio appreciates when faith communities admit uncertainty about how to best help an individual with mental health symptoms. Caprio says “it is better to know that you don't know the best way to help someone than to try to help when you have no idea what you're doing. As long as they direct people to a mental health counselor, that is the important thing.”
Alexia Anast, a Christian blogger, realizes churches may simply not know how to address mental illness. ”It’s possible churches don’t believe they’re in the right position to speak on the matter,” said Anast and she “strongly encourages mental health conversation in churches. I have a few ladies in my Bible study groups who either suffer from mental health issues or know someone with a mental illness and you can tell what a relief it is for them to simply have people to share that struggle with.”
When it comes to church leadership, John Crossman, CCIM, CRX thinks that pastors are not necessarily qualified to handle mental health issues. While he acknowledges that “pastors have tremendous skill sets”, seeing them as the first line of help for mental illness, is “like seeing your pastor for a dental issue.” Crossman also points out the “pastors often are not equipped to deal with their own mental health issues.”
Along with uncertainty of how to help, some churches have misconceptions about the origin of mental health conditions. Theresa Leskowat MS LCMHC realizes there are congregations that view mental illness as sin or as a result of not being faithful enough. “This makes it harder for people who struggle to speak up, even in churches that may not take this view,” said Leskowat. “I would love if we could bring our efforts together more because the mission of the church and of the mental health world are the same, to help people.”
Christie Dondero is the Executive Director for Rock Recovery, faith-based organization that helps people overcome eating disorders and related mental health issues. She firmly believes churches are uniquely equipped to help people because they already have a community of trust. “When we have partnered with churches to run our courses,” said Dondero, “ dozens of people often come who have struggled for decades but never felt safe to seek help until their churches opened their doors and provided a safe space.”
Alesha Brown belongs to a type of church that Dondero describes. Brown’s church is making efforts to inform themselves about mental health issues so they can better serve their congregations. She describes her church as “a small, predominantly senior citizen population of a black Baptist church” and says church leaders recently completed mental health first aid and peer recovery specialist training. Brown says “Our personal mental health experiences, coupled with our recent training, will be used in our outreach and community church work. We will create programs to address mental health issues and its impact on families during our church conferences and programs.”
Even without formal training programs, some churches have members that are very compassionate about mental health conditions. Therapist Jacob Kountz noticed that his clients “who engage with their local church have shared with me how supportive certain church members are.” He wonders though where that support originates. “Does it come from the church, it’s members, both? In my experience so far,” says Kountz, “it’s a bit of a mix which makes me optimistic for the future of my city, the support of churches, my clients and ongoing dialogue about this particular topic.”
The hope is that communities will be welcoming for people with a mental health condition who want to be involved in their churches, like Kountz’s therapy clients, but who fear how their mental illness may interfere with that process. Kountz said “Some are plagued with anxiety in talking with other people while others are subdued with fatigue from ongoing depression.”
And with all communities, there is still a problem of stigma to overcome regardless of how informed people may become or how welcoming a church is perceived. “While we have not experienced resistance in speaking out about mental health in our church,” said Brown, “few want to share their personal experiences. Stigma as well as not wanting to ask for help prevails, especially in church communities.”