Mental Health Challenges and the Church
An overview of mental health challenges
Neuroscience researchers continue to uncover the mysteries of the human brain. This complex organ has billions of nerve cells (neurons), thousands of connections from each neuron to other neurons, and trillions of possible pathways for nerve impulses to travel. Mental health challenges are multi-faceted.
They are often linked to social, environmental, contextual, neurological, traumatic, or hereditary/genetic factors. As with other kinds of disabilities, they are in no way indicative of a lack of faith or moral failing on the part of the person with mental health challenges. Since mental illnesses involve biochemical changes in the brain, medical conditions such as heart attacks, strokes, or cancer can contribute to mental health challenges. These and other conditions can produce symptoms of clinical depression or other mental illnesses that may respond well when treated as part of the underlying condition.
Other factors can contribute to mental health challenges. People who lack social support, feel isolated, or have low self-esteem are at a higher risk for developing emotional disorders. Other risk factors include poverty, lack of access to medical care, social marginalization, experiences of trauma and loss, and the perceived absence of purpose or meaning in one’s life.
While we continue to learn more about the causes of mental health challenges, a diagnosis does not define the whole person. People with mental illnesses are unique individuals created in the image of a loving God with skills, gifts, talents, and abilities to share with the body of Christ.
Types of mental health illnesses and treatment options
Mental health illnesses include but are not limited to anxiety disorders, addictions, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), postpartum depression (PPD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), eating disorders, major depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia.
The Mental Health and Faith Community Partnership created “Mental Health: A Guide for Faith Leaders,” which provides valuable introductions to specific mental illnesses.
Most mental health challenges can be treated successfully with a combination of drug therapy and various types of talk therapy or counseling. Yet, only one-third of those living with a mental illness seek treatment. This is due in part to stigma surrounding being diagnosed with a mental illness, a lack of awareness about the illness and treatment options, financial limitations, and/or negative religious connotations.
The role of faith and church support
Faith communities have much work to do to address the shame, guilt, and stigma associated with mental health challenges. Often due to particular theological beliefs or a lack of information, some religious groups do not understand mental health challenges to be actual illnesses. They may attribute mental health challenges to a lack of faith or to unconfessed sin in the person’s life. Sometimes, people may even be encouraged to stop taking medication and rely only on prayer. Sometimes, blame is put on the person’s family at a time when family members are most in need of support.
- Science, medicine, and faith can all contribute to a person’s healing. Faith looks to healing—not simply a mental or physical cure—as a kind of peace that comes from knowing that God is at work in our lives even through challenging times.
- Learn more about the distinction between healing and curing.
Both faith and science are necessary and should complement each other as we learn to live with mental health challenges. Medications may stabilize symptoms, but the experience of love in relationships and our connection with God and other people leads toward genuine healing. Family members, friends, and a supportive faith community can model God’s unconditional love by assuring the person they are not alone in the midst of personal darkness. Reassuring scripture passages include Isaiah 43:1-4; Psalm 139:7-12; and 1 John 4:16b, 18a.
Factors that can promote recovery
- A sense of community.
- The rituals of a person’s faith tradition.
- Other spiritual practices such as prayer, testimony, and meditation.
- Awareness and understanding of a person’s cultural background, including that culture’s understanding of mental health.
Factors that hinder recovery
- Discrimination such as racism, ableism, and sexism.
- Stigma about mental illness.
- Lack of outreach to people with mental health challenges.
- An authoritarian perspective and/or lack of openness
- The historical schism between religion and the mental health community.
- Lack of consistent community and care practices.
Recommendations for faith leaders
- Create a welcoming, supportive environment for people with mental health challenges.
- Educate church leaders on the basics of mental health and mental illnesses.
- Address issues of individual and systemic discrimination to build community and belonging.
- Combat stigma, including dealing openly, positively, and compassionately with pastors who have their own mental health issues.
- Include information about mental health on your website.
- Directly engage mental health as part of formational and education curriculum, and through the community’s life of worship (preaching, prayers, services, liturgy, etc.).
- Acknowledge that in some cases, people have religious trauma that can be triggered by rituals and spiritual practices of faith traditions (see Sacred Wounds by Teresa Pasquale).
Issues facing people with mental health challenges and their family members
- Finding appropriate care and practical support, such as housing.
- Learning about mental health laws and regulations.
- Setting appropriate boundaries.
- Getting on the “same page.”
Emotional support for a person’s family is essential to help deal with natural feelings that can include guilt, shame, anger, confusion, loneliness, fear, anxiety, and despair. Church leaders can help by referring family members to mental health professionals or support groups offered in their community to help make a plan that is best for everyone. Faith communities can be a source of spiritual and inner strength for family members.
Each person longs to know that someone understands their pain and that they will receive ongoing support and care. Churches can also provide space for meetings among community support groups to demonstrate their commitment to caring for those who live with mental health challenges and their loved ones.
Thank you to Rev. Susan Gregg-Schoeder for generous use and adaptation of her Mental Illness and Families of Faith Study Guide.
Everybody Belongs, Serving Together is a collaboration of RCA and CRCNA Disability Concerns, Christian Horizons, and Elim Christian Services.
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