Previously I wrote concerning the importance of faith communities as well as professional support in addressing mental health in our congregations. I advocated using a holistic approach, addressing the spiritual, emotional, physical and social aspects of the whole person. Today I am going to look at practical ways that churches can do that.
There are many ways a church can address emotional health, but I think it’s important to state that not every church is going to address them the same way or to the same degree. Part of this simply comes down to resources. Some churches can hire a full-time pastoral counselor or even have a counseling program in-house, but the vast majority of churches in America don’t have the resources to do this. Even in dense suburban or metropolitan areas it isn’t helpful to duplicate services to the point where every church has a counseling center. What all churches can and should do regardless of their size is to identify the needs that are present in their congregation as well as in the community, survey the resources that are already available to help meet those needs, and then find ways to fill in the gaps.
My church for example held a listening session for members of the congregation to address their own concerns about mental health issues and how they impacted them personally as well as communally. This helped to identify needs as well as people already in our church who could help meet those needs. I discovered that there were many people in our congregation that had expertise in this area: professional counselors, school psychologists, grief counselors, and autism spectrum specialists. Many of these people offered to act as mentors or “go to” people whenever issues came up in their particular areas of expertise. We created a list of local agencies and hotline numbers to provide our staff when emergency calls come in. This included the local suicide prevention hotline and counseling agencies we trusted. We are also working on updating our website with links to other information and resources.
Another way to help those hurting is through training lay leaders to provide low-level support to those going through grief, depression and anxiety. Many churches have used Stephen Ministry training to develop support networks for their congregations. While not providing professional counseling, Stephen Ministers do provide the listening, caring and one-to-one interaction that is the basis for healing and can support those going through more professional services.
Churches may also recognize events such as Mental Health Awareness Month (May), and Suicide Prevention Month (September) to help raise awareness of these issues within the church and promote an environment of acceptance. Remember that these do not need to be grand affairs: even mentioning them in the bulletin can be helpful for those affected by these issues.
Finally, consider that addressing mental health issues in the congregation does not mean only considering illnesses like major depression and anxiety. The increase in diagnosis of autism spectrum disorders for example has led to a resulting increase in families bringing children who fall along the spectrum to church, only to find that the church is completely unprepared to know how to address that child’s needs. Children and adults with intellectual or developmental disorders may also fall through the cracks, leaving families to feel left out or unwanted. Training volunteers and leaders to be sensitive to these individuals and their families is very important. In working with children with special needs, it’s especially important to develop a partnership with the family to help address their needs and concerns, and to work with any other professionals that may be working with that child in and out of the service.
This post really only touches on how church leaders can address mental health needs within their congregations. There are many other practical ways to address these needs and provide essential support to those struggling with mental illness and disability. If this is something your congregation is considering, I strongly suggest that you think creatively and comprehensively to identify the needs you may have as well as to how you can meet those needs. I hope some of the suggestions provided have been helpful.
Next we will look at how to address issues of mental health within the service itself.