Mental Health in the Church
“I can’t quite explain how distressing it was to have to go through the process of discovering I had mental illness while walking alongside well-meaning but ignorant people.” - Anonymous
“Every once in a while I run into people who don’t believe in mental illness and that it is a scam. Other people have told me to pray my depression away. Have even been told I was sinning for being clinically depressed as I should just think happy thoughts.” - Anonymous
“Silence is the biggest problem. If you don’t hear about it from others around you then you think you are the only one. You also don’t learn the skills needed to help others suffering.” - Anonymous
“…often when you disclose a mental health disorder then EVERYTHING becomes about that disorder. Every interaction is tinged with it. It’s exhausting for the person with the mental disorder.” - Anonymous
Mental Health in the Church Survey
The above are just a few quotes from people who filled out a survey I created about mental health in the church. The survey received 68 responses, 42 who attend church regularly, 2 who normally attend church but haven’t during COVID-19, and 17 who used to attend church.
Thirty-eight have struggled with mental health issues for over 10 years, nine who have struggled for five to ten years, four people for one to five years, two who have struggled for less than a year, and fifteen who haven’t struggled with mental health issues.
A survey was also sent out to pastors and youth pastors of EMC, EMMC, and MB churches and received 19 responses, 15 of which have served in a leadership position in churches for 10 years or more.
Mental health has become a more common topic of discussion in society. Yet, of the people who responded to my survey 55.9% have never heard about mental health in the church.
This does not mean churches are ignoring it but there is a disconnect between what services and resources churches offer and what church attendees think their churches offer. The chart below shows what pastors said their churches offer and what regular church attendees say their churches offer.
As indicated, 84.2% of pastors said their churches offer financial help for people to access counseling but only 7.4% of church attendees said their churches offer it. Almost 40% of church attendees who responded to my survey didn’t know what their churches offer or chose none of the above.
One of the most encouraging things I saw in the results of my survey was people’s openness to disclose mental health issues to their pastors. Only 19.1% of respondents said no, they would not be comfortable talking to their pastors about it. When I filter the results to only respondents who currently attend church, that number drops down to 7.8% who wouldn’t be comfortable disclosing mental health issues to their pastors.
Mental Health Issues Are Common
Churches can’t ignore mental health issues as it is something that affects Christians as well as non-Christians. Just over 32% of the people who filled out the regular church attendees survey said they have a diagnosed mental illness and 44.1% of respondents either currently are taking medications for mental health issues or have taken them in the past.
Nearly 56% of respondents said they have struggled with mental health issues for more than 10 years. In the survey for pastors, 94% said they have had a member of their church approach them with mental health issues and 63.2% of pastors said they have had people who don’t attend their church come to them with mental health issues. Mental health issues pastors said they have dealt with included depression (89.5%), anxiety (89.5%), substance abuse (57.9%), ADHD (36.8%), post-traumatic stress disorder (36.8%), bipolar disorder (31.6%), eating disorder (26.3%), schizophrenia (15.8%), obsessive-compulsive disorder (21.1%), and self-harm (5.3%).
What Churches Can Do
What can churches do to respond? An encouraging aspect of the pastors’ survey is that almost all of them know their limits. When issues are beyond what church leaders and pastors can handle, they have referred people to more qualified help, while continuing to walk alongside.
However, there are areas of improvement. Churches could advertise the list of mental health professionals they have or other online resources they recommend, such as in the weekly bulletin, on their website, if they have slideshow of announcements or info before or after a service, they could have a slide or two with some mental health resources.
Start a support group – this doesn’t have to be led by the pastor or someone who has a master’s degree in counseling. I have a 3-year bachelor’s degree from Steinbach Bible College and have taken some counseling courses, but I am not a pastor nor a counselor. I lead a mental health support group in my church with their support. There are materials available that can be used to incorporate mental health, faith, and practical ideas for how to live in recovery. One of the biggest purposes of a support group is for people who are struggling to not feel alone.
Another thing churches could do is to talk more about mental health. Have guest speakers in to speak during the church service, Sunday School, or have a special event on a different day such as a workshop. Include mental health in sermons whether it is a dedicated sermon to mental health or insert it as an example during a different sermon. Have someone who is living a victorious life with mental illness or has come through a dark time, share their testimony. Encourage Bible study groups to do a study on mental health.
Churches that offer financial assistance so people can access professional counseling services may want to advertise it so more people are aware it exists although this one poses a few more difficulties. Churches only have so much money available for this and it will often be based on a case-by-case basis so it may not be offered to everyone.
I would encourage anyone struggling with mental health, to talk to your pastor. They can encouragement, refer you to someone who is better equipped to help you, possibly offer financial help for counseling, or other things. You may not know what they can do for you until you talk to them.
To all church attendees, I would charge you with this – educate yourself about mental health issues, also be aware of what perception you give regarding mental health issues. If someone is struggling with their mental health and they don’t hear you talk about mental health or they hear you talk negatively about it, they aren’t likely going to see you as a safe person to talk to.
This article was originally published in the EMMC Recorder, Vol 58 No 5
Author Angela Dueck (Morrow Gospel Church, Winnipeg) has a Bachelor of Christian Studies with a Peer Counseling focus from Steinbach Bible College. She facilitates a mental health support group in her church and has a passion for improving mental health services and awareness in churches.