Mar 18

IM Moment: Changing attitudes towards mental health and the church



“In this life you WILL have trouble,” Jesus said, “but take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). The troubles that come our way are various and sometimes complicated. Physical, mental, emotional, and relational difficulties can intertwine themselves into a big, BIG ball of overwhelming force that threatens to shake our faith at times. So, what can we do to create a supportive community where people can authentically present their difficulties–especially around mental health and parenting traumatized children–without fear of judgment? How can we come alongside those who are struggling with a message of hope, even when their prayers for relief from depression or anxiety have seemingly gone unanswered?

In my conversation with Joelle Johnson, LCSW, LCC, we spoke about the power of changing the language around the various struggles those in our churches might face. There is a tremendous potential healing power that comes from connecting an individual’s trials and tribulations to the larger narrative of their faith tradition. However, if the attitudes and behaviors in a faith community suggest that it is up to them to figure things out on their own before they can fully participate in the fellowship of believers, the pain and shame of a mental health crisis can be compounded.

So, what can we do to help… especially when we might not have the whole picture or the individual might be pulling away from fellowship because of their expectations of how they will be treated or perceived if they reveal what their struggle might be?

  • Don’t wait until a mental health crisis occurs in your church or faith community to talk about mental health in your church! Add those struggling with mental health (in a general way) to your prayers or petitions in worship. Preach on mental health or look for stories or illustrations in preaching and teaching that touch on mental health issues. Include Intermountain Moment bulletin inserts to keep the subject before your congregation. Look for resources from your denomination on issues of mental health. [NOTE: there probably already IS a mental health crisis going on in your faith community, but could be disguised as something else]
  • For those “pulling away,” practice a stance of compassion, just as if that individual had had a physical health crisis like a stroke or injury that caused them to be a shut in for some time. Why mention this? Well, my experience suggests that sometimes those who find themselves in a sudden hospitalization and have to be home bound for some time are appreciative of the visits that members of the church make and the outreach the church mobilizes around their need. What if we organized a “meal train” or regular visitation for those experiencing a mental health crisis (and their families) just as we would for a new baby in the family or a physical health issue, like recovering from a surgery?
  • Be careful around the conversation of “healing” for mental health issues. Often, these conditions or illnesses will be continuing issues for them, without a “healing” in site. If someone with a mental health diagnosis senses that they “should be healed” after they pray with us, it creates an expectation and culture that inhibits authenticity. Because the illness is hidden, the “healing” can be faked… out of their desire to please us and be healed, not based in their reality and true experience.

I’d love to continue the conversation that Joelle and I had around these issues with you and your community! If you haven’t engaged the curriculum Bruised Reeds and Smoldering Wicks, it can be VERY helpful in building a culture within your church that addresses mental health and trauma in a way that is healing and redemptive. You can also contact Intermountain and arrange for a speaker, training, or additional information.