Promoting mental health inclusion at church? Respond to the family’s most immediate needs

In the eighth installment of our series, Ten Strategies for Promoting Mental Health Inclusion at Church, Steve discusses how churches can be the hands and feet of Christ through responding to practical needs of families both inside and outside the church impacted by mental illness. 

If we’re to have an impact as the hands and feet of Jesus to those who are outside the church, we first have to get better at addressing the practical needs of families impacted by mental illness who are already part of the church or those who have some connection to the church. Imagine the reaction of someone desperate for care and support who feels overlooked while the church pours into others!

At the same time, our ministry colleague (and former Key Ministry Church Consultant) Mike Woods frequently reminds us of the importance of “outwardly-focused inclusion.” Because we’ve hypothesized that families of kids with mental illness and trauma are significantly less likely to attend church or participate in other activities offered to promote discipleship, we can’t wait for them to come to us…we need to be intentional about going to them.

We’re going to look at an inventory of ideas for churches seeking to serve kids, teens and adults with mental illness and their families. We’ll start this list with strategies primarily intended for those who already have a connection with the church and end with activities more likely to impact persons outside our congregations.


  • 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 impacted by mental illness.
  • 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? During a segment on the crisis in children’s mental health that aired last year on 60 Minutes, one mother put it like this…

My daughter, when she was thirteen was hit by a car and fortunately was fine, except for a very bad broken leg. The church organized a brigade of casserole makers, the neighbors brought casseroles, friends, families, everybody. Six months before that, Christina had spent two months on a psychiatric ward, and we had no casseroles. And I’m not blaming the church or the neighbors or anything…because of the stigma, we didn’t tell people.

  • 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 member in assisted housing?
  • Counseling: Many adults or kids who could very much benefit from counseling are unable to afford it. Since many seek help from the church already, the availability of high quality counseling services offered free of charge or at an affordable price through a local church helps address a very pressing need.
  • Referral services: Many families don’t know where to turn when mental illness strikes in the family. Churches provide a valuable service when they can help families identify appropriate practitioners/agencies for their mental health needs and help facilitate a connection.
  • Compassion: Many churches have a benevolence or “deacon’s fund” to provide financial assistance to members or attendees with pressing financial needs. Churches can communicate the availability of support when families have no other way of addressing a short-term mental health need…one-time consultations, prescription refills, transportation, child care for a parent receiving treatment.
  • Community: Persons with mental illness and their family members are frequently experiencing social isolation and a lack of support. Many churches offer Stephen Ministers or similar high-quality, confidential caregivers to support hurting people.
  • 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?
  • After school programming: Kids who struggle with mental illness are more likely to come from single-parent families, may benefit from structured environments and need opportunities to work on social skills in a nurturing and accepting environment. Have you ever considered offering ministry for kids and teens after school? Wanda Parker and her team at KidTrek have developed good models for after-school ministry. Because higher rates of mental illness are reported among kids with learning disabilities, after school tutoring programs provide churches opportunities to provide kids with adult mentors while meeting immediate needs.
  • Parent advocates: Many kids with mental illness will require special education services (covered under an IEP) or school-based accommodations (covered under a 504 plan). A church can provide an invaluable service to parents by providing trained advocates to accompany parents to educational planning meetings at schools. Advocates may also help families access needed services through the mental health system.
  • Prison/homeless ministry: You’ve probably never thought of your church’s homeless ministry or  prison ministry as mental health outreach. 26% of homeless persons are characterized by SAMHSA as having “severe mental illness.” According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 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 those you serve through these ministries?

We’re always interested in learning of new ways in which churches have provided meaningful service to families impacted of mental illness. Know of a church doing great work in mental health ministry? Doing something innovative? Let us know by posting a comment or link below.