by Rev. Jermine D. Alberty
I had no idea how my life would be changed when I had to face one of the greatest challenges in life; the attempted suicide attempt of my then 17-year-old son. He is now 21 years old and is thriving in his recovery. I was fortunate to find support within my faith community to support me and my son. However, it is unfortunate that others are unlikely to find the same support. Researchers in a study conducted by Baylor University found that more than 32% of Christian church members who approached their church for help with personal or family members diagnosed with a mental illness were told by their pastor that they or their loved one did not actually have a mental illness.
Talking about mental illness can be a taboo subject in the church, because people often shy away from what they don’t understand or deny that it even exists. However, it is imperative that the church becomes prepared to care for and love those in our community with mental health challenges. Individuals often turn to leaders and members of the church first for assistance and we must be ready to meet their needs.
The church must take a holistic approach to how we serve our members. This is essential if we are to thrive as a church in the 21st century. While the focus of some churches is spiritual centeredness, a church’s concerns should also include the physical and mental well-being of its congregation. As leaders and members of congregations, it is crucial that we understand that we often have more influence on those in our congregations and communities than an outside mental health provider does. Our encouragement and investment in getting individuals in need culturally appropriate mental health care is the key.
It is important that faith communities are equipped to deal with youth and adult members of their congregational community who live with a mental illness, addiction, or the effects of trauma. Chances are if you haven’t encountered someone with these challenges, it will happen sooner than later. Often we do not even engage persons that might have these struggles because we are unclear on how to approach or assist them. The barrier is often our stigma regarding mental illness and substance use disorder. You might say we have an ‘astigmatism.’
Astigmatism is a common vision condition that causes blurred vision. Unfortunately, the stigma surrounding mental illness has blurred the perception of how churches welcome and support persons who might be experiencing a mental health or substance use challenge.
I intentionally use the term challenge and not the word problem. When many of us think of persons with a challenge to their mental wellbeing as having a problem, we tend to try to fix it or them. As a faith community, our aim should not be to try to fix people but to walk with them on the journey of recovery and healing and to assist them in whatever way they may need us to help them overcome their challenge. When we avoid isolating others with mental illness and instead embrace them, we can then take up the mandate to begin decreasing and eventually eliminating the scourge of stigma that plagues many of our places of worship.
In order to act with the love of God for those we encounter, I encourage congregations to consider starting a “Mental Health Ministry,” which can develop their capacity to support recovery and wellness with individuals and families facing mental illness or substance use challenges. There are 5 steps that congregations can take to create such a ministry in their community:
1. If we are to create a welcoming and supportive faith community, we must identify the things that we say and do that promote stigma. The first step begins with us evaluating how we use our sacred text to bring condemnation or even shame to people who might be experiencing a mental health challenge.
Imagine a congregation member saying, “I could have lost my mind, but God saved me.” Now imagine hearing that as a person who has just experienced an episode of psychosis.
Imagine another member sharing the advice, “Just praise God, and that spirit of heaviness will go away.” Now imagine hearing that as a person wrestling with depression.
Imagine your pastor teaching the message, “God has not given us the spirit of fear, but of power, love and a sound mind.” Now imagine hearing that as a person living with a serious phobia or anxiety disorder.
Understanding the power of the words we use is an essential step in reducing stigma. Using scriptures that might bring encouragement and joy to some, could leave others feeling as if they have failed God or, even worse, God has failed them.
2. Congregations should assess the mental health needs of a congregation. This is an essential second step for congregations to gain an understanding of their own perception of mental illness and substance use disorders. A congregational assessment helps to determine the need for a mental health ministry and what trainings the community might need to increase their ability to provide the support and care for persons in need.
3. The third step is to increase the mental health literacy of the congregation and provide a basic understanding of various mental health challenges that may be encountered in the community. Depending on the need of the congregation, this may be done through trainings like Mental Health 101 or Mental Health First Aid.
4. The fourth step is to form a ministry focused specifically on mental health and wellness. This may include developing a local interfaith mental health training coalition, a congregational mental health committee, or a companionship care team in order to provide support for those members doing the work of outreach to others struggling with mental health or substance use challenges.
5. The fifth and final step is to ensure that the movement is sustained. Sustainability will differ between communities. However, every congregation should enact the following: Make a commitment, educate yourselves, get buy-in from your clergy/board of directors, form a task force or ministry team, decide with your team what you want to accomplish, define strategies to keep individuals involved, make an inventory of available resources, join with other organizations, communicate, and be prepared to nurture your ministry.
It is only by working together that we can increase mental health literacy, reduce stigma, and promote a message of healing and recovery within our communities and across our nation. I implore you to join me in this life-saving and sacred work.
The Rev. Jermine D. Alberty is the executive director of Pathways to Promise and principal consultant of SALT Initiative. He is a National Trainer of Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) a program to help the public identify, understand and respond to signs of mental illnesses and substance use disorders. He is the co-author of the book “Bottled up Inside: African American Teens & Depression.” Visit The Companionship Movement to learn more.
Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash