By Wesley Gallagher
Churches are often the first place people go when they’re struggling. When a family member is ill, pastors visit the hospital, and church members provide meals. When a loved one dies, they comfort the family and help perform the funeral. When a congregant loses a job, they rally around to help them through tough financial times.
One of the more nuanced issues churches and their leaders face today is that of mental illness and addiction. These struggles are not always as cut and dry as things like physical illness and death, and the stigma that surrounds mental health and addiction can get in the way of proper treatment. With the right tools and mindset, however, churches can be an integral part of helping people in their community who struggle with these issues.
How Do Churches Help Those Struggling with Mental Health and Addiction?
Churches provide much more than a place to worship on Sunday — they provide a strong sense of belonging and community for their members. This sense of community can be invaluable for people struggling with mental health and addiction issues.
Isolation is a huge contributing factor for mental illness and addiction, and the ability to reach out for help is a key step in recovery. Pastors or members of church small groups are often the first to hear of these issues and can therefore be instrumental in getting people the help they need.
How Does the Church Fall Short?
Evangelical polling organization Lifeway Research has found that people with mental health disorders often turn to pastors for help, and pastors and churches want to help people dealing with it. But many churches aren’t prepared to provide adequate care for those who need it.1
Despite the fact that one in four Americans suffers from mental illness in any given year, most protestant pastors rarely speak to their congregations about it, and about a quarter of pastors are reluctant to help people dealing with acute mental illness because it takes too much time. Only 27 percent of churches have a plan to assist families affected by mental illness, and 14 percent have a counselor skilled in mental illness on staff.1
Another barrier to addressing mental illness and addiction in church is the belief that such struggles are due to moral failing or lack of faith. Mental illness and addiction are plagued with stigma in our culture as a whole, but the church faces unique challenges in this realm.
One Lifeway study revealed that a third of Americans, and nearly half of evangelical, fundamentalist or born-again Christians believe that prayer and Bible study alone can heal serious mental illness. Ed Stetzer, President of Lifeway Research, says that, while Christians care about those affected by mental health disorders, he worries that it’s seen as less of an illness and more of a character flaw.2
Tim Clinton, President of the American Association of Christian Counselors, believes spirituality can play a crucial role in treating mental health disorders.2 But until it’s recognized as a physical issue that may need to be treated by medical professionals, many who struggle with it won’t get the help they need in church communities.
Reconciling Faith and Medicine
Yet another hurdle is the seeming disconnect between faith and psychiatry. Kathryn Greene-McCreight, Associate Chaplain at Yale University, says she had difficulty finding a therapist who didn’t try to “cure” her of her faith while working to cure her depression.3 Secular psychiatry and psychology can be dismissive of — if not disdainful toward — faith, which makes many Christians hesitant to dive in.
Sarah Rainer, PsyD, writes in Christianity Today about the necessity of integrating psychology and Christianity for people of faith. While secular psychologists have begun recognizing spirituality’s impact on people’s lives, they fall short of the Christian view that it’s imperative for life.
Christian psychologists’ worldviews must be determined by scripture, but the use of research-based, secular interventions shouldn’t be eschewed. Dr. Rainer believes that understanding the biological, social and psychological aspects of mental illness will help professionals better help their patients, while recognizing that not all secular research is congruent with Christianity.4
The Best Ways Christian Faith Communities Can Help
In a CNN article, Ed Stetzer lists four things he believes Christians and churches can do to better address issues of mental illness:
- Churches must stop hiding mental illness, even though it’s a difficult issue to address and understand, and recognize that there are people in every church who struggle with it.
- The church should be a safe place for people who struggle, even if it is difficult to help someone with mental illness. Love extends to everyone, even those who are difficult to understand.
- People of faith can’t be afraid of medicine. It’s time for people of all faiths to affirm the value of medical treatment for mental illness the same way they affirm medical treatment for cancer.
- Shame cannot keep these issues in the dark. People need to know they don’t have to hide, and that the church community and its leaders are here to help.5
Armed with the right mindset, accurate knowledge and adequate resources, churches and their leaders have the opportunity to change and potentially save lives by dealing properly with mental illness and addiction.
1 Smietana, Bob. “Mental Illness Remains Taboo Topic for Many Pastors.” Lifeway Research, September 22, 2014.
2 Smietana, Bob. “Mental Health: Half of evangelicals believe prayer can heal mental illness.” Lifeway Research, September 17, 2013.
3 Burton, Tara Isabella. “Christian faith communities are often on the front lines of mental health care.” Vox, October 6, 2017.
4 Stetzer, Ed. “The Integration of Christianity and Psychology: A guest post by Sarah Rainer.” Christianity Today, September 25, 2014.
5 Stetzer, Ed. “My Take: How churches can respond to mental illness.” CNN, April 7, 2013.