Many pastors and churches want to respond well to mental health needs in their congregations and communities, but often they do not know where to start. While it is important to offer ministries such as professional counseling, lay counseling, peer support groups and classes, you can start improving your response simply by increasing the emotional safety of your church. You don’t need to find leaders and start ministries if you don’t have the infrastructure yet. Begin with these 5 simple tips for making your church emotionally safe.
1. Be sensitive
Awareness is the first step towards addressing any issue. Sensitivity begins with educating yourself and those around you about what mental illness is and what it is not. For example, when many people hear the term “mental illness” they picture someone who is psychotic and/or homeless. These stereotypes cause stigma and prevent us from truly understanding the needs around us. Social anxiety, for example, is likely to go quite unnoticed in a church setting because someone facing those symptoms will be likely to fade into the background (or not return if they felt pressure to shake a lot of people’s hands). Someone struggling with depression may seem fine while at church, but they may be in bed most days the rest of the week. Be on the lookout for people who seem to hang out on the fringes of your church and build relationship with them. Do more listening and less fixing.
One side note: if you are not a pastor then it may be helpful to consider that your pastor may be the one struggling with mental health problems. Encouragement and care can be a two-way street, so take time to check on your pastor now and then.
2. Avoid pity
When you develop relationships with those experiencing a mental health disorder, avoid pity. Pity tends to increase shame as people feel like others are simply trying to fix them or make their problems disappear. Pay attention to the person’s strengths — what are their spiritual gifts? What are some ways to get plugged into the church that would not require extensive commitment? Where are they at in the spiritual journey and what wisdom do they have to share with others? Focusing on strengths helps us all see that mental illness does not put a person on the fringes of the kingdom of God. When we pity and marginalize people, we force them out to the fringes of society. But God does not operate this way and neither should the Church. Everyone can be used by God in meaningful and important ways.
3. Talk about mental illness regularly
Stigma increases when we put judgment and labels onto issues that we do not understand. There is much even in the medical and mental health communities that is not yet understood about brain dysfunction. But we do know that the brain is a complex organ in the body that can experience a variety of diseases just like the rest of the body. Talking about mental illness and acknowledging the physical impact of stress, anxiety, depression, trauma or Bipolar Disorder (to name just a few) is important to decrease stigma. Pastors, be intentional about talking about mental illness from the pulpit. Acknowledge the struggle that 1 in 5 American adults face every year as they experience symptoms of a mental illness. List “depression” or “anxiety” right alongside “cancer” or “diabetes” when you are talking about disease, and avoid talking about depression as a spiritual issue that goes away with prayer. My rule of thumb is this: if you cannot replace the words “mental illness” (or the name of a mental health disorder) with “cancer” in your sentence, then you should not say it. (For example, “My friend told me she has anxiety, and I told her that she should rest in God’s presence and he will remove it” replaced with “My friend told me she has cancer, and I told her that she should rest in God’s presence and he will remove it.” Should we all rest in God’s presence? Yes. Can he heal all diseases supernaturally? Yes. Would you be likely to say that to a person who told you they had cancer? Unlikely.)
4. Be knowledgeable about resources
Take time to find out where there are Christian counselors and mental health agencies in your area. Call them and find out which health insurances they take or if they have waiting lists. Find out if there are emergency services in your area for those who are feeling unsafe or suicidal. Ask if you can visit or tour the closest psychiatric hospital and find out their visiting policies. Gather a list of hotlines, including the National Suicide Hotline (1-800-273-8255) or others local to your area. Call them to see what you can expect when someone calls. Also remember that your church is a resource. Just as you might make meals or babysit or visit those who are sick, do all of those things for people who are experiencing depression or other mental health symptoms.
5. Walk alongside
Mental illness is not always chronic. But even with single-episode illnesses, symptoms do not “clear up” in a short amount of time. Someone may experience a depressive episode, for example, anywhere from two weeks to a year or more. Others may have chronic symptoms that do not ever fully go away even with treatment. Still others may go through cycles where they are well for a time and then re-experience symptoms. If you become frustrated when someone is depressed, begins to feel better for a while, and then re-enters a new depressive episode, you are not creating emotional safety for that person. Be willing as a church to walk alongside those with mental illness for as long as it takes. Even if that means they have more emotional needs than others might. As you walk alongside, do not presume to know what a person needs. Ask how you can be of help, and if they are not sure then just be consistent in checking on them or making a meal “just because.” Showing that you care can go a long way towards creating trust and emotional safety.