The Church and Mental Illness. Break the Silence. Break the Shame.
The 1973 hit movie, The Exorcist, tells the story of a young girl named Regan, who became possessed by the devil. The mother desperately sought help from a local priest who later attempted to perform an exorcism on the girl. This movie ended up becoming the ninth highest-grossing film of all time in the US, selling 110,599,200 tickets at the box office after multiple releases. The Bible is no stranger to individuals becoming possessed by demons. We come across countless stories in the gospels where people seek out Jesus to perform miracles of healing for individuals who seem to be possessed by an evil spirit. However, in the time of Jesus, no one went to college and majored in psychiatry and they had a limited understanding of the human brain. With that understanding, one must wonder the individuals in the Bible were possessed by a demonic spirit or were some struggling with a mental illness.
Mental illness is a subject that is not talked about and severely neglected within the walls of the church. According to the American Psychiatric Association, mental illness is defined as “health conditions involving changes in emotion, thinking or behavior (or a combination of these). Mental illness is associated with distress or problems functioning in social, work, or family activities. ”  Although studies show that 1 and 5 people will struggle with some form of mental illness in their lifetime, only a total of 44 percent of those people will receive treatment. Sadly, with nearly 20 percent of people within the pews struggle with mental illness, a LifeWay Research study reported that 49 percent of pastors surveyed say that they rarely or never speak to their congregations about mental illness.
One might assume that some pastors shy away from speaking about this subject because they don’t feel adequately equipped to do so. Whereas others might not understand how significant the issue of mental health is to their congregation. Regardless of the reason, there needs to be a shift within the church to become more intentional about developing a plan of care for those with mental illness. Even though creating a significant impact around this issue will take time, there are some initial steps the church can take to become better prepared to address this issue.
Pastors can begin doing this by speaking about mental illness from the pulpit. The pastor arguably has more influence than anyone in the church and can help to shift the misconceptions that people have about mental illness. By choosing to talk about the mental illness during a sermon or at another point during service, they help to destigmatize the issue. For a member of their congregation who has a mental illness, it can be scary for a person to share their experience out of fear of being judged. However, when the pastor is intentional about speaking about mental illness, members who need support are more likely to come forward to receive help.
A second step that the church can take to become more equipped to offer care is to provide training to those in leadership on the subject. The church can provide courses like Mental Health First Aid, which educates lay leaders on the different types of mental illnesses. The training also teaches participants how to respond to an initial mental health crisis. Those who go through this training can also choose to continue this conversation by forming a plan of action if ever a mental health emergency transpires in their church.
In addition to training lay leaders on how to respond, pastors must receive direction on how to address this issue. It is common for people to approach their pastor for counseling. Most pastors have not gone to school for social work, psychology, or psychiatry. Pastors must recognize the difference between professional counseling and pastoral counseling, and be mindful of their limitations. If a pastor or lay leader is not a clinician or trained advocate, they need to quickly refer the member to someone who is more equipped to provide them care.
Church leaders should make it a priority to have information for referrals to counselors, support groups, or other resources so that a care plan can be put in place. However, the pastor does not have to be the one to initiate this. There might be individuals who are trained professionals within the church who can organize a mental health ministry. By identifying a group of mental health professionals in the church, pastors will have designated people that they can easily refer a member of the church to for assistance. These small but intentional steps can be done within a church of any size and can make a big difference in the lives of their members.
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 “What Is Mental Illness?” American Psychiatric Association, reviewed August 2018. https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/what-is-mental-illness  “Mental Health By the Numbers, ” National Alliance on Mental Illness, last modified September 2019. https://www.nami.org/Learn-More/Mental-Health-By-the-Numbers  Sharon E. Moore, Michael A. Robinson, Alicia Dailey and Carlos Thompson, “Suffering in Silence: Child Sexual Molestation and the Black Church: If God Don’t Help Me Who Can I Turn To?” Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment, no. 25 (2015): 154.