It Starts on Sundays: Why Open Discussion on Mental Health in the Church Starts on the Stage on the Lord’s Day

I’m a pretty transparent person, somebody you’d describe as “wearing their heart on their sleeve.”

Anytime I’ve heard that phrase, I feel like it’s always said in this gray area as far as whether or not it’s a good thing. I think that’s how I would describe my transparency: sometimes good, sometimes bad.

Sometimes I get frustrated by that. Obviously, I wouldn’t want everyone to hear all of my thoughts, so “total transparency,” in the truest sense of the phrase, wouldn’t be something I’m clamoring for. But I think there’s positives in being more open about things, talking about more topics, even the hard ones, the taboo subjects.

Sexual assault and domestic violence. Drug use and weapons. Mental health.

I’ve written a lot about mental health over the years because it’s been a constant part of my life, and I really believe that God’s educated me in it to share with others. But when we look at the numbers, it appears that a sizable chunk of the Christian church doesn’t feel likewise.

Feeling Left Out

In 2014, LifeWay Research conducted a survey of Protestant pastors, individuals diagnosed with acute mental illnesses (depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia) and family members of those with acute mental illnesses. If you’ve ever been in a normal evangelical church with a mental health disorder, you probably won’t be surprised in the results.

A sample of the results:

  • 56 percent of pastors interviewed “strongly agree(d) that local churches have a responsibility to provide resources and support to individuals with mental illness and their families.”
  • 49 percent of pastors rarely or never spoke to their church in sermons or large group messages about acute mental illnesses. 
  • 28 percent of African-American pastors said they spoke about it once a month or more, while just 4 percent of white pastors said they did.
  • 22 percent of pastors said they’re “reluctant to get involved with those with acute mental illness because previous experiences strained time and resources.”
  • 53 percent of individuals with acute mental illness described their church as “supportive.”
  • 36 percent of evangelical pastors were less likely to select “Medications should be used any time they can ease symptoms” than mainline pastors (50 percent).

The study is a fascinating exploration of perspectives on mental health and the church. It was done five years ago, so there’s no telling how things have changed. The survey happened in 2014, the year I began to understand the complexities of my mental health. So these statistics make sense to me.

The LifeWay Research team also gathered a group of mental health experts for the study. They didn’t participate in the surveys, but gave their thoughts on various topics. 

Among the findings:

  • “People with mental illness or their families deal with a large amount of shame and social stigma around the illnesses.”
  • “Pastors’ reactions to people struggling with mental illness are varied.”
  • “Pastors are most likely to change their view on mental illness once they are personally impacted by it.”
  • “Before sharing their illness with others, it is important for the individual to feel they are in a safe church or group.”

Through this study — which is one example, yes, but from a reputable source — we see that the church isn’t talking that much about mental health, but some are, and the majority of people with mental health disorders are finding their churches supportive. I’m happy to see the positive results, but there’s something missing.

Talking about mental health openly and lovingly in Christian community is vital. I can back this up with my personal experience. When I first felt symptoms of my depression and anxiety, I didn’t know how to speak about it for two reasons: I couldn’t really explain it to myself, and I didn’t know how to explain it to somebody else. Even my best friends in college, those I loved and trusted with a lot of other things, didn’t seem to me to be ready to handle it. I don’t blame them, by the way, and don’t hold any grudges or frustration with them.. 

That left me dealing with it on my own. Anyone who deals with any major illness on their own can tell you it doesn’t go well. Isolation often makes mental illness worse, as being lonely can just breed depression or anxiety, and not treating things like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia can have disastrous, even fatal consequences through suicide and accidents. Search “people with schizophrenia shot” and you’ll see that many individuals have been killed by police who didn’t know what to do — again, not blaming them entirely — with someone having an episode and brandishing a weapon.

That leads to many having the shame that prevents and (most times) the inability to accurately describe what’s happening to well-meaning people who don’t have the time or resources to fully understand what’s going on. It leaves us stuck and hurt, unsure of what to do next, even in the church. I’d add a “just” qualified to the 53 percent of those surveyed with acute mental illnesses said they felt supported in their church. Just 53 percent.

Why isn’t that 100 percent? A couple of reasons, I think. First, some of us struggle to feel supported no matter what happens. Mental health disorders alter the way you think and properly evaluate circumstances, leading to the 33 percent in the survey that said they didn’t know how they felt about it. Secondly, a lack of open conversation, as evidenced by the just 49 percent of pastors that rarely or never spoke about mental health in a large setting, can keep people in the dark.

This has to change.

Starting on Sunday

When I was younger, my family would go to church on Sunday. When we left, usually to go to lunch somewhere, my parents would ask me and my siblings what we learned. I honestly can’t remember if I learned anything from sermons until I was in double-digit ages, but it was a common experience for me and many of my peers.

How often do you see your Facebook friends who are Christians and active members of a church go to their social media feeds and write about how great the sermon was? There’s a church in my hometown that encourages its members to share the “social media moment” of the message each Sunday, often during the service. What’s shared on Sunday morning, or whenever you attend your church’s large gathering, becomes the church’s calling card. What the pastor says on Sunday mornings is vital to a church’s public image and often reveals what he or she, as well as the congregation, values.

Much too often, as the LifeWay study showed, mental health is not one of those things. 

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 1 in 5 U.S. adults experience a mental illness each year, and 1 in 25 experience a serious mental illness that “substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities.” That means that out of a church of 200 adults, it’s likely that 40 are dealing with some sort of mental health issue, and for eight of them, it substantially interferes with their life, including church. 

When it comes to the marginalized in society, the ones Jesus showed His love for and commanded His disciples to do the same, the numbers are higher. An estimated 46 percent of homeless adults staying in shelters live with severe mental illness and/or substance use disorders. Approximately 20 percent of state prisoners and 21 percent of local jail prisoners have “a recent history” of a mental health condition. Astonishingly, 70 percent of youth in juvenile justice systems have at least one mental health condition, and at least 20 percent live with a serious mental illness.

Despite these numbers, NAMI says, just 41 percent of adults in the U.S. with a mental health condition received mental health services in the previous year.

It’s my very firm belief, something I’ll likely go to the grave with, that changing this situation, both in the U.S. and in the church, starts by speaking about it on the biggest stage possible. In the church, that’s Sunday morning.

Speaking as someone who has multiple mental health disorders, I can tell you that the pastor who addresses depression, anxiety and more becomes a representation of Christ more strongly to me and to many than the one who preaches verse-by-verse through the Bible. Doing both — which is possible, I’ll show you how later — is even better.

I think it’s a symptom, an unintended consequence, of the evangelical church’s preaching pattern. Seeking to avoid “picking and choosing” Bible verse to support one’s own opinion, pastors will pick a book of the Bible and go verse-by-verse. I think that can be good, especially through epistles like Romans that perfectly explain the basis of Christian theology, or narratives like 1 and 2 Samuel that tell the story of God’s first people, the nation of Israel, and how they did some things right and screwed some other things up. 

But since the Bible is an ancient book, and we get too scared (sometimes rightly) of reading something into the text that isn’t there, we don’t talk about the modern problems to which the principles of Scripture speak. Far too often, at least in my experience, pastors avoid the difficulties of handling social media, properly engaging the popular culture of the day and dissecting how mental health problems can be answered — not fixed, but answered — with the love of God. 

This can be fixed. It’s not hard, really. And it doesn’t even have to be a sermon.

A Panel Solution

A couple weeks after a regular attendee at my old church committed suicide, I was talking to a fellow member and friend of mine who also struggled with mental health issues. We lamented the fact that the church at large seems so under-prepared to handle things like suicidal thoughts and people feel relegated to suffering in silence.

I had an idea. Why not have a Sunday service dedicated to mental health? Make everything revolve around the idea of making mental illnesses meet Jesus. 

A few months later, it was set. I created a video mashing a performance of the song “1-800-273-8255,” named after the National Suicide Prevention Line, with comments on mental health struggles from celebrities and news clips of prominent people who had committed suicide. The argument was this: “The world outside the church is already dealing head-on with mental health disorders, in a very real and in-your-face way. People like Kristen Bell and The Rock are talking openly about this. Why aren’t we?”

My pastor at the time, who had been open about his mental health struggles in the past, opened the service explaining what was going to happen. We had a testimony from a woman in the church who spoke about her experience. After a couple songs, we got to the best part: a panel discussion with several members from the church (including me) about mental health.

My friend and I represented having severe anxiety and depression. A full-time therapist who did counseling work with teens, adults and couples spoke from the angle of helping people with mental illness. Another church member talked about grief, and a mother and father of a child with ADHD spoke about their experience. It was surreal to me to be up on that stage with people, all Christians, and talk about how Jesus spoke to them in their struggles, what it meant to join mental health and faith.

It was a highly-attended service, and a week or so later, the mother of the person who killed themselves, wrote a letter to the editor of the town newspaper — where I was working at the time, funny enough — saying she was elated that the church was talking about these issues and providing a space for people to feel safe and comfortable with their struggles.

And it all happened on a Sunday morning.

I fought for the event to happen on a Sunday morning because, as I’ve argued already in this piece, change in churches often starts on Sundays. It starts when the pastor makes a stand or allows someone to speak about an issue that’s bubbling under the surface. Maybe it shouldn’t have to be that way in churches — I think it’s a result of the celebrity complex around pastors in the Christian world, something that’s been in place for centuries — but a full examination of that can be done another time.

A Grand Application

I wish I could say that churches around town heard about what we did and hosted their own panels or special Sundays, reaching everyone with the gospel of Jesus applied to mental illness: that God loves you no matter your mental state, that His mercy and grace is not stopped at the door of your chemically-imbalanced brain. Maybe they did happen and I just never heard about it; despite being a journalist, I’m often late to news, even within my own family. 

It would make my soul soar if churches around the country would have similar Sundays, but not every church is equipped for such a situation. Maybe they don’t have enough members willing to share openly about their struggles, and that’s fine. But, as I said before, I firmly believe that the path to killing stigma and fear around talking about mental health disorders in Christian churches starts on Sundays. So here’s a few options for getting there.

Preach a sermon about mental health. The Bible is chock full of passages where individuals’ mental health is God’s focus and the writer’s attention: Elijah in 1 Kings 19, David at multiple points throughout the Psalms, Job in his eponymous book. So even sticking to preaching the Bible verse-by-verse can be faithfully done while examining mental health and the Christian life.

Or you could take a more holistic approach to the topic. It could be on an educational focus, pointing to the number of people struggling with mental health issues in both the church and the world and point to Jesus’ focus on people’s health as part of his earthly ministry. It could be from a theological perspective, focusing on how God’s love for His children is not conditioned on their mental health or ability to comprehend things like “normal” people. It could be from a counseling perspective, pointing to the resources available to those who struggle with mental health and praising those involved for their follow-through in “loving the least of these,” as Jesus said in Matthew 25. 

Those with mental health issues often feel like “the least of these” in church. Starting on Sunday with a sermon is a great kick-off point.

Host a mental health expert. That LifeWay Research study from earlier provides more interesting insights into the church’s role in caring for those with mental illnesses. According to the responses, just 14 percent of pastors said they had a counselor on staff skilled in mental illness and 13 percent provided training for leaders to identify symptoms of mental illness. Individuals with acute mental illness strongly encouraged both — 53 percent said local churches should provide training for the church to understand mental illness and 42 percent encouraged having a counselor on staff skilled in mental illness.

Since the church is, according to this survey, inadequately addressing mental health with skilled education, it might be good for churches with fewer resources — like not having enough people, time and money — to host a mental health expert for a Sunday morning conversation or message about how church members can spot mental illness symptoms or offer explanations for how specific disorders affect the brain and emotional and mental state. It might cost some money — or there may already be a counselor or psychologist in your congregation — but it would be totally worth it.

Provide resources or a “people-to-call” list. This one is pretty easy. Most churches have a bulletin board or pamphlet rack where important information can be placed for people to peruse or pick up at their convenience. Sliding brochures from the local mental health clinic, business cards of the closest Christian counselor or a list of Bible verses to consider when dealing with a mental health crisis is a simple way to start addressing the issue. Depending on where you are, it might take a little time and research, but again, it would be totally worth it.

Host a Sunday school class with a book study. The LifeWay survey showed that 44 percent of individuals with acute mental illness surveyed said local churches should “offer topical seminars on depression or anxiety,” but just 19 percent of pastors said their churches do this. There are beginning to be more books and offerings for Christians struggling with mental health disorders or people who love them. Hit up Google or search Amazon for a highly-rated book or trusted author who’s explored this topic and let it guide a Sunday school class for a few weeks. That will give people a smaller group atmosphere to dissect the topics and discuss things in a more manageable group. Again, might cost some money, but totally worth it.

It Starts Internally

According to the LifeWay survey, 27 percent of pastors said they church had a plan for supporting families of the mentally ill.

We have plans for helping a new mother get a pasta on Thursdays and a casserole on Fridays. We have plans for helping a family move homes. We have a plan for making sure the church van key is passed around properly. We have a plan for paying the bills on time. The least we can do is make a plan for supporting those struggling with mental health.

But most importantly, you’ve got to talk about it, and it starts from within.

As already stated, the “world” has done an amazing job at breaking down the stigma around mental illness. Celebrities have been open about the times they’ve been hospitalized for extreme stress or suicidal thoughts, and whole songs and films explore the effects of severe mental illness. The least we can do is start talking about it.

Fifty-nine percent of individuals with acute mental illness said local churches should talk about mental health openly so the topic isn’t taboo, according to the LifeWay survey. That is where we should start. I really believe that, just like we talk about the Gospel, about baptism, about abortion, about feeding the poor, we should be talking about mental health.

Of individuals with acute mental illness, how people in their church responded to their mental health affected them — 8 percent stopped attending church altogether, 5 percent couldn’t find a church to attend and 10 percent changed churches. That means 23 percent of those with mental health disorders had their church attendance pattern — and with it their sense of community, commitment to a local body and ability to explore Jesus in a large group — alter, no doubt significantly in some cases.

We’ve got to do better. And it starts by talking.

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