Ten ways for churches to serve families impacted by mental illness

“Small things done with great love will change the world.”

Those words are carved above the entrance to the main campus of Vineyard Cincinnati, a church that does an extraordinary job of sharing the love of Christ with the people of their surrounding community and region. They also represent an important strategy for connecting with families who may be skeptical about Jesus because of negative experiences with Christians or church.

If we’re to impact individuals and families affected by mental illness currently outside the church, we first have to get better at meeting the practical needs of families impacted by mental illness who already have some connection to the church. Put yourself in the shoes of someone struggling with mental illness or the burden of being a caregiver to someone with mental illness. Imagine the reaction of someone in the church desperate for care and support who feels overlooked while the church pours into others!

At the same time, we need to be intentional in our efforts to enter into relationships with those in our community – with or without mental illness who lack a relationship with Jesus and a church community. Our ministry colleague and former teammate Mike Woods frequently reminds us of the importance of “outwardly-focused inclusion.” Given the social isolation that families of children with mental illness and trauma often experience, we can’t wait for them to come to us - we need to be intentional about going to them.

I’d like to share ten suggestions for churches seeking to serve kids, teens and adults with mental illness and their families…

  • Intercessory prayer: How often have you heard your pastor or another pastor pray for people impacted by mental illness during a worship service? Regularly scheduled public prayer is a powerful strategy for affirming attendees struggling with mental illness and conveying a sense of welcome to visitors.
  • Casseroles: Every church that I’ve attended church in my adult life had some type of ministry to provide food to families following the birth of a baby or during an illness. Would your church make sure that a family with a child in the hospital has something to eat? What if their child is in a psychiatric hospital? 
  • Hospital visits: In many churches a pastor or member of the pastoral care team will seek to visits members/attendees in the hospital or another extended or long-term care facility. Would a child or teen in a psychiatric or residential treatment facility get a visit from the children’s or student pastor? What about the adult child of a church member admitted to a state-operated psychiatric hospital?
  • Counseling: Many adults or kids with anxiety disorders or depression could very much benefit from counseling but are unable to afford it. A local church that makes available excellent counseling services for low or no cost helps to address a very pressing need.
  • Community: Persons with mental illness and their family members frequently lack support. Many churches offer Stephen Ministers or confidential caregivers to support hurting people. Some offer Biblically-based peer support groups, including Fresh Hope and Celebrate Recovery,  or "Grace Groups" offered through Mental Health Grace Alliance that provide educational materials, skills and tools to specifically work to improve mental health wellness and recovery.
  • Compassion: Many churches have a benevolence or “deacon’s fund” to provide financial assistance to persons with pressing financial needs. Churches may consider supporting families with no other way of addressing short-term mental health needs - one-time consultations, prescription refills, transportation needs or child care for parents in need of treatment.
  • Respite care: Our team has found that church-based respite events for families of kids with special emotional, behavioral, developmental or healthcare needs is greatly appreciated by parents who often struggle to find affordable childcare and represents an effective outreach strategy that often leads to attendance at weekend worship services. rEcess from 99 Balloons and Buddy Break from Nathaniel's Hope are two outstanding ministries that train churches to offer respite outreach.
  • Mental health-focused worship services: Many churches will designate a specific weekend as a “Disability Ministry” or “Special Needs Ministry” Sunday. In our home area, we’re seeing churches host worship specifically for families with identified special needs. Why not host a worship service with a mental health-specific theme with appropriate worship music and teaching promoted to families of kids and adults with mental illness who lack a church home?
  • Referral services: Many families don’t know where to turn when mental illness strikes. Churches can provide a valuable service by directing those in search of mental health services to practitioners and agencies equipped to meet their needs.
  • Prison/homeless ministry: You’ve likely never considered your church’s homeless ministry or prison ministry as components of your mental health outreach. One in five homeless persons are characterized by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA) as having “severe mental illness.” According to statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice, approximately, 24% of jail inmates, 15% of state prisoners, and 10% of federal prisoners reported at least one symptom of a psychotic disorder. Local jail inmates had the highest rate of symptoms of a mental health disorder (60%), followed by State (49%), and Federal prisoners (40%). How can your church better support the mental health needs of persons you serve through these ministries?
What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

James 2:14-17 (ESV)