The Church’s Response to Mental Illness: (Small) Things Are Changing
In 2010, in preparation for an article I wrote for Leadership Journal, I worked with the journal to conduct a survey of 500 churches, using the National Alliance on Mental Illness definition of mental illnesses: “medical conditions that disrupt a person’s thinking, feeling, mood, ability to relate to others and daily functioning” and “often result in a diminished capacity for coping with the ordinary demands of life.” We asked church leaders about their experiences with mental illness among members of their congregations, in their families, and personally. We also asked them what their churches believe about mental illness, how they treat people with mental illness, how frequently they mention mental illness in their sermons, and other revealing questions about this sensitive topic.
Some of these survey results were published in that article I wrote for Leadership, and the full results were published in my book Troubled Minds.
This year, as research for another article, we ran the survey again to get an updated look at church leaders’ experiences, beliefs, and actions related to mental illness. The most striking revelation came in seeing how little has changed in four years. On most points, responses were very consistent. In both years, 98.4 percent of respondents said they had seen some type of mental illness in their congregations. And essentially the same percentage of people (only 12.5 percent in 2010 and 11.9 percent in 2014) said mental illness is openly discussed in a healthy way within their churches. But there were a few interesting points of change:
- In 2010, 6.7 percent of survey respondents said they were never approached for help in dealing with mental illness. In 2014, 11.8 percent of church leaders gave this response. Does this reflect a general decrease in the number of people who are going to the church (historically the number-one place people go) for help with mental illness?
- In this year’s survey, 44.1 percent of respondents indicated that their church sometimes responds to mental illness by ignoring it. This compares to 52.6 percent in the 2010 survey. The percentage of people who said they have made special allowances to accommodate the needs of a person’s mental illness grew from 29.9 percent to 41 percent. At the same time, the percentage of church leaders who said they sometimes ask people to leave their churches, either temporarily or permanently, because of mental illness, doubled (from 8 percent to 16.8 percent). Perhaps more church leaders are recognizing the importance of engaging with people affected by mental illness–but more of them are engaging and responding by removing people from fellowship.
- The percentage of church leaders who said they personally provide pastoral counseling/treatment for mental illness decreased from 61.1 percent to 50.9 percent.
- These four years saw a small decrease in the percentage of church leaders who indicated their congregation believes the following about mental illness:
– It’s indicative of demon possession/demonic influence (in 2010, 19.7 percent; in 2014, 14.9 percent).
– It’s a reflection of a spiritual problem that must be treated spiritually (in 2010, 30.5 percent; in 2014, 26.1 percent).
– It’s a behavioral problem caused by a person’s bad choices (in 2010, 29.4 percent; in 2014, 26.7 percent).
- Apparently a few more churches are mentioning mental illness in their sermons, with fewer (24.2 percent, compared to 29.1 percent in 2010) saying it is never mentioned in their churches. In 2014, 26.7 percent said mental illness is mentioned once a year (versus 20.6 percent in 2010).
- Church leaders in our second survey were more likely to indicate that they have personally suffered from some type of mental illness. Overall, 62.9 percent indicated they had this experience. This represents a significant change from 2010, when just 54.6 percent claimed they had been through mental illness. More than a third (34.6 percent) said they had experienced an anxiety disorder, the most common type of mental illness in the United States (compared to 22.9 percent in 2010). Close to half (44 percent) said they had suffered from a mood disorder, such as depression (compared to 38.7 percent in 2010). At the same time, the percentage of people who indicated mental illness was present in their families (81 percent) did not change.
I see some encouraging signs here, and it helps temper my sense of frustration that we are not progressing more quickly in our attitudes and responses toward mental illness. I am thrilled that many churches are becoming more aware of the problem and the church’s responsibility toward people affected by mental illness. From my interactions with church leaders, I know that many more are feeling empowered to recognize mental illness more readily and intervene with more confidence. May grace abound more and more.
These statistics were originally published in a sidebar to the article “Growing Grace for Mental Illness” in the Fall 2014 issue of Leadership Journal. You can read the entire article here.