Communicating Your Care For Mental Health
A lot of churches are good at caring for physical needs. Our deacons help many people through benevolence funds. Other churches partner with organizations that provide physical support for families in need. But an area that we’re all more open to supporting lately—without a whole lot of experience or expertise—is caring for people’s mental health.
Right now, mental health is a massive issue that needs to be addressed in your church. Your pastors, staff, and congregation are all dealing with anxiety, depression, isolation, angst, fear, and so many more feelings—in ways that are new and unknown to a lot of people. How the church addresses and cares for the physical and mental health of its people is critical.
The whole concept of mental health has been something I’ve wrestled with for more than a decade in ministry. The dilemma I have faced is probably similar to the situation for many churches, so I think it’s a story worth sharing.
When I was relatively new in ministry, I was taught—both outright, and perhaps through a bit of socratic inquiry—that mental health issues are the result of sin and weak faith, with a heavy emphasis on our sinful nature. As I took part in these discussions and listened to people I trusted, I couldn’t help but apply what I was being told to my own life.
When I was 19, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. So as these discussions were happening, my thoughts, of course, turned to my own experiences: Why do I feel this way? What sin do I need to repent of so that I don’t feel down? Why can’t I change my behavior or emotions? What am I doing wrong? In turn, I felt I couldn’t go to the church leadership with my emotional struggles because I knew their response would be that I “just needed to repent from my sin” and then all would be well again.
The last decade-plus of ministry life and dealing with my disorder has taught me that we need to be careful not to be “experts” in areas where we have no expertise; we also need to be incredibly empathetic to situations that are outside our own experiences. It’s okay to not have all the answers, but it’s not okay to pretend like you do—or worse, to avoid the situation altogether.
I’m grateful that the stigma of mental health seems to be disappearing over the last few years. As with most things, I suspect the church is a bit slow to learn this trend, but now is a great time for your church to think about how you're caring for the mental health of your congregation and staff. Here are five ways to communicate that you care about people’s mental health.
1. Create valuable partnerships
It’s okay to acknowledge you’re not experts about disorders, diseases, and the mental well-being of your congregation. Instead of trying to become an expert, find organizations you can partner with to provide support and refer people to when they need professional support. What organizations in your community (or online) are providing incredible mental health services?
2. Provide ways for your staff to receive needed support
Providing support for your staff needs to be a priority. We’re all shouldering new and burdensome responsibilities. Your staff are the last people that will come to you saying they need help, but it’s vital they receive support in this area. In the last year, two well-known pastors died by suicide—both were outspoken advocates for healthy lifestyles, too.
Your job—even if it’s not part of your job description—is to find ways to actively provide that help and support for your pastors, staff, and leadership. Maybe that means more team time. Maybe that means your church pays for professional counseling services. What can you do to encourage your staff’s mental health?
3. Make mental health support a priority
Just like addiction recovery, marital counseling, discipleship opportunities, or other support ministries receive a great deal of attention in churches, your support for people’s mental health needs to receive the same amount of effort. The more you promote mental health support, the easier it is for people to realize it’s okay to seek assistance—and that it’s healthy and we encourage people to reach out for help. What ways do you communicate the other support ministries of your church? Your mental health opportunities need to be on-par with the rest of those resources.
4. Be proactive
Don’t wait for a tragedy to happen in your congregation or community. Don’t wait for the health of your church members to become a major issue. Instead, be proactive. Find ways now to support the health and well-being of your people. Speak about it. Write about it. Provide support for it. The more we make mental health part of the regular cadence in our church ministry, the easier and faster we will remove the stigma and culture of silence that leads to shame.
5. Create a plan
Now—in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic—is a great time to make a plan for your mental health resources. As we’re all isolating ourselves, working from home (or not working at all), and facing a long road ahead, mental health should be a priority for your church. How you communicate about mental health should be built-in to your reopening plan. To truly care for your people, you need to care for the whole person. And now, perhaps more than ever, that means an emphasis on areas and topics that were once considered taboo or even too time-consuming.
Mental Health Resources
Four Models of Counseling in Pastoral Ministry by Tim Keller
“Navigating Anxiety” from FamilyFire
“Resources for Talking to Kids About Fear and Worry” from Kids Corner
“Talking to Kids About the Coronavirus” from FamilyFire
"Managing Fears and Anxiety around the Coronavirus (COVID-19)" from Harvard University Health Services