Every year in the United States, about 20 percent of adults live with a diagnosable mental illness. That’s about equal to the total percentage of people diagnosed with cancer, those living with heart disease, people infected with HIV and AIDS, and those afflicted with diabetes—combined! Although many church leaders aren’t aware how pervasive mental illness is, perhaps no one is more in touch with this reality. Why? Church leaders are on the front lines of mental health care.
In a mental health crisis, as in other kinds of crises, many people look to the church for help. One study showed that among people who had sought help for mental illness, 25 percent went to a member of the clergy. That’s more than sought help from psychiatrists, general medical doctors (both 16 percent), or anyone else. That means the people who are specifically trained to help are not called upon most often—you are.
This same study found that of those who went to clergy for help, less than 10 percent were referred to a mental health professional who could help with treatment. This is alarming, especially considering that 25 percent of those who seek help in the church have the most serious forms of illness.
In 2010 and 2014, in partnership with Leadership Journal, I conducted surveys of more than 500 church leaders, regarding their attitudes and responses to mental illness. Among those who responded, 98 percent indicated they were aware of mental illness within their congregations. Thirty-three percent said they’re approached at least six times a year for help with mental illness. But only 28 percent feel “competent” or “confident” to minister to people with mental illness, and 3 percent consider themselves “expert.” (For more on the results of this survey, see my book Troubled Minds.)
How do church leaders handle this gap between people’s needs and their qualifications? Among those I surveyed, 72 percent had referred someone for counseling or treatment outside the church. Sixty-one percent had personally provided pastoral counseling or treatment. And 52 percent had at some point become aware of an illness and ignored it.
Churches tend to embrace one extreme or the other: Many try to treat everything in-house, often assuming mental illness is a spiritual problem with a spiritual solution. Others refer everyone out to mental health professionals and then move on, figuring the person’s needs are now met. The right approach is usually somewhere in the middle.
People with mental illness need evaluation and, in many cases, treatment. They also need spiritual guidance and loving community. They need the church to walk with them through the dark days mental illness and through the challenges of treatment. For church leaders to provide this kind of care well, they need to form partnerships.
There’s no need for church leaders to walk alone in helping people with mental illness. Beneficial partnerships are well within reach. Many churches have Christian mental health professionals right in their own congregations. Others have them close by in the community. And for those without Christian professionals in the area, most can find professionals who don’t practice from a Christian perspective but respect the role of faith and the power of community in healing (most do).
Find at least one such professional. Consult on a regular basis. If necessary, partner with other churches to share the expense for formal consultations. You can always speak generally and get advice. And if the professional is treating someone in your congregation, you can ask that person to give written consent allowing you to consult specifically on that case and learn how you and other church members can best support the person’s treatment.
Remember, asking for help does not expose a weakness in your ministry any more than your inability to treat ailments like cancer and diabetes. Rather, it strengthens your shepherding abilities and expands what you can offer people in need. Collaboration with mental-health professionals can help your ministry produce more holistic care and smarter, healthier relationships.
© 2019 Amy Simpson.