What is the number one thing that your church can do for the community around you? Here in Colorado, that question was posed, and the answer was simple: you can help with mental health.
Dealing with mental health challenges can be, well, challenging. But they do not have to be complicated or consuming. If you know a few simple steps, you can work with mental health issues with just two words, each applied corporately and individually:
When you begin thinking about your church, the best place to begin is with the invitation, which will show you what kinds of preparation you need to put in place.
When you think about creating mental health awareness, the first thing to address is stigma. Around one in five of your congregants will deal with a mental health issue in any given year. How many of those people will actually talk about their mental health? Maybe you see a couple people who are dealing with depression or anxiety, but do you know about the remaining twenty percent?
When your church begins addressing mental health, you have to create space for people to talk about their current state. How can you give your congregants permission to share about themselves, and know they will be safe?
When you address mental health, it is not enough to talk about some abstract person with a mental health issue. Tell a story of a real person people know, and if possible, have them talk about their mental health themselves, either in person or via video. Many pastors deal with depression; pastors, do you talk about your depression? Many pastors deal with anxiety; pastors, will you talk about it? When people hear the story of someone they know in their congregation and see a compassionate response from the church, it creates space for the needs that already exist to come out. Further, if pastors share about their personal mental health, they can model dealing with mental health challenges.
Where should you address mental health struggles? In as public and large a space as possible. Can your pastor talk about mental health for a couple minutes on a Sunday morning? Can your worship time include a testimony? Stigmas are thick enough; this is not an issue that can only be talked about in a class. The discussion needs to be from the biggest stage possible. Pastors, if speak about mental illness during the worship time, you can be assured that people will notice your risk and will be so glad that their church finally addressed these struggles.
Before you make space to talk about mental illness on a Sunday morning, what kind of resources or preparation do you need? If people approach the church staff after you say something about depression, does everyone on staff know what to do? If people approach your staff to talk about suicidal ideation, does your staff know the first step to help?
In general, before you make a statement like about mental health needs on a Sunday morning, your church needs a two-part preparation:
Basic mental health training
Basic theological unity about mental health among the staff.
What basic mental health training do you need? We understand that many of you do not have a lot of time. QPR suicide prevention training can be done in one to two hours for your whole staff. Training specific to church work is available through Soul Shop. Mental Health First Aid and ASIST are great trainings, but they are eight to sixteen hours long. If you cannot do a training, at least make the suicide prevention hotline available to your staff 1-800-273-8255. This hotline is staffed with counselors who can help with a mental health crisis and provide great first steps for initial triage. Train your staff to call this hotline when they are with helping someone going through something really hard. More important than knowing everything about mental health, your staff needs to be confident that they can do something helpful in a mental health crisis. Some basic training gives your staff that confidence.
Please also find a counselor or mental health professional you can talk to if you want advice. Pastors, you don’t need to know how to do everything in congregant’s mental health crisis, but it is important to have a backdrop of personal resources in an emergency. If your staff is prepared, in the unlikely event that a mental health emergency happens at church, they can feel prepared to deal with that event and get people initial help.
Next, do the work to build a theological framework with your staff. Is mental illness a sin issue? Is it a faith issue? Can you pray it away? Is the person with mental illness at fault for having the illness? Simply, when the Fall happened in the Garden of Eden, everything broke, including the mental health of many people. Mental illness is a result of the Fall, but most of the time no amount of faith will fix it. However, community support, love and the right resources can greatly improve mental health over time.
Your church staff needs to be on the same page with what you believe about mental illness. You church needs to provide a united front about mental health.
After you have made the big Sunday splash and talked about mental health, now it is time to make space for your congregants to have a place for their personal story. They do not all need to meet with the pastor. Instead, create space for people to share their stories. There are a number of organizations that have group curriculum for making this space, including My Quiet Cave, Fresh Hope, and Mental Health Grace Alliance.
The goal is simple: once you let people to know it is safe to share their stories, please create a place where they can. Community and healing happen when people share struggles together, especially in person. Don’t just talk about mental health on a Sunday but no other time. People will feel like there is more openness (which is an improvement) but even better is consciously creating space for people to heal.
When you invite people to tell their stories, to be vulnerable together and to heal, you may need a few additional resources. Specifically, it is great to have two point-people and a great resource list.
Why two point people? People get sick, go on vacation, or are sometimes unavailable. For those times, we need someone else as a backup. The point person is someone who is passionate about mental heath, can help build community and create positive first steps. Often, these will be the leaders of support groups in your church; they may be counselors or mental health professionals, chaplains. The point people should be passionate about mental health, willing to take an elevated role and healthy enough to do so. Note: The lead pastor should not be one of the point people. Don’t burn out your pastor. Unleash your congregants to do work for which they are gifted and passionate.
Your church probably already has a mental health resource list, but it may need an update. Many of our church partners don’t remember who is on their list or know what their specialties are, and few churches have low cost options listed. It is a great idea to periodically reach out to the resources on your list with a quick phone call or email, to find out who they are and what they do. You can also use the contacts on your list to build out additional resources if needed. Generally, mental health professionals have a referral network for clients who need additional help.
To make this simple, corporate invitation says, “We care about mental heath, it matters.” Individual invitation says, “We care about your mental health, you matter.”
When you put invitation and preparation together, you create space for your congregation to minister to mental health needs. This is not an overwhelming process, even if it sounds like it. Create space for people to know you care about mental health with a story, and get your staff ready. Then create space for people with mental health challenges and their supporters to talk about their issues, and have some resources in place in case people need additional help. If you do these things, you can build everything else as you go.
If you have questions, you can always reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Brandon Appelhans is the Executive Director of My Quiet Cave, a nonprofit located in Denver Colorado, creating spaces of faith and mental health by helping educate faith leaders and lead faith based groups for people with mental illness and their families. For more information visit myquietcave.org or email email@example.com