Around the world, mental illness is being recognized as a health crisis. September has been designated as Suicide Prevention month in the U.S., with World Suicide Prevention Day just recently on the 10th of the month. Local and national lawmakers are debating how to treat and care for those living with this type of condition.
Statistics reflect the striking reality of mental illness in our midst. For instance, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) reports that in the U.S. alone, 19.1% of adults and 16.5% of youths experienced some sort of mental illness in 2018. Suicide was the second leading cause of death among people ages 10-34.
The numbers may seem grim, but the people of God can have a positive impact on this situation. In fact, the church is in a unique position to offer comfort, grace and hope to those individuals and families struggling with mental illness. To reach them, though, sometimes requires special training, not only for leadership, but for lay people within the congregation.
Clergy are often brought into a situation during times of crisis, but not beforehand. According to a LifeWay Research study, only 4% of church attenders who lost a family member to suicide say their Pastor was aware of their loved one’s struggles. This says a lot about the importance of making ministry to those with mental illness a church-wide effort.
Scriptures about the struggle
The subject of mental illness isn’t new, and the Bible does not shy away from it. Some of the so-called heroes of the faith dealt with depression and even suicidal thoughts:
After fleeing from death threats, Elijah actually prayed for death. "I have had enough, LORD," he said. "Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors." (1 Kings 19:4)
The prophet Jeremiah came to a place of depression during his ministry to Jerusalem. He lifted up a complaint to God, “I never sat in the company of revelers, never made merry with them; I sat alone because your hand was on me and you had filled me with indignation. Why is my pain unending and my wound grievous and incurable?” (Jeremiah 15:17-18)
King David wasn’t afraid to go to the Lord when he was at a low point, even asking, “How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart?” (Psalm 13:1)
God always saw the true source of a person’s distress and met their needs. In many cases He provided for them physically, and then also emotionally and spiritually. Most of us can’t perform a miraculous healing. But we can learn what God has for us to do, mainly to give comfort and support, while leading others to know Him better.
What Jesus taught about ministering to others
Many people shy away from trying to help those with mental illness because of fear. Others don’t think they can get involved without a specialized degree or license. While medical professionals need to be the first step in treating any conditions, there are places where others can play an important role.
Scripture lays out principles for ministering to others, such as Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritan in Luke 10. In that story, a man is attacked by robbers on his way to Jericho. Two men passing by ignored him and walked on. But a Samaritan man stopped, tended to the man’s wounds and took him to an inn where he could heal.
From this passage, we can see Jesus model three heart attitudes that church families need to cultivate:
The Samaritan acknowledged the man. It sounds so basic, but how often do we avoid stepping out of our comfort zone, even when we see a need around us? If we ask, God will give us courage and discernment.
The Samaritan didn’t care about the other man’s background or his life, except that he’d been wounded, and took pity on him. Do we let judgement or assumptions regarding someone's issues hold us back from reaching out to them? We need to pray for God’s tenderness toward others instead.
The Samaritan got personally involved, doing what he was able to for the man. Do we really want to be the hands and feet of Jesus, even if it costs us? God wants to equip us to do our part, no more and no less.
Action steps to start right now
Find out where your church stands in regards to helping someone with a mental health issue. What, if any, protocol is in place for reporting issues or concerns? Is anyone on staff officially trained to offer counseling?
If a member of the congregation is a mental health professional, ask them to do a presentation for the leadership, and if possible the whole church. They can provide basic knowledge to dispel fears and concerns, answer questions and offer ministry ideas. (If that isn’t possible, a local doctor or speakers can visit.)
Compile a list of local professionals. Get their suggestions on handling immediate issues, and see if they are willing to accept patients from within the church.
Support the Pastor and/or other leadership in receiving at least fundamental training in recognizing and helping those in the congregation with mental conditions such as anxiety, depression or suicidal thoughts.
Develop a small group of congregation members who have a heart for this demographic to be developed as a team. They can help the pastor stay aware of any issues members are dealing with, and offer prayer and encouragement.
Incorporate mental illness awareness as a topic of sermons and into studies during the year.
Use Spiritual disciplines, such as prayer, Scripture study and fellowship, as tools to minister and disciple those suffering with mental illness.
These three websites are a great beginning toward making church a place of safety and hope for those with mental illness and their families.
- mentalhealthministries.net/Resources - This site offers brochures, books, even bulletin inserts geared toward various denominations.
- nami.org/Get-Involved/NAMI-FaithNet/Resources - NAMI has numerous resources for churches to learn more about mental illness. Their Pathways to Promise center provides training materials and technical assistance.
- focusonthefamily.com - The well-known and respected ministry has written several articles related to mental illness, such as warning signs, talking to children about this topic, and how it affects marriages.
Photo credit: Unsplash/Hian Oliveira
Heather Adams is an author, speaker, and singer living in Connecticut. Heather’s passion is to equip and encourage believers to seek more of God’s truth and to experience more of His joy each day. Her book, “Bow Down: The Heart of a True Worshipper” is a practical, 30-day devotional about worship. Worship Walk Ministries, her blog, offers weekly Scripture passages and insights to ponder. Heather shares her home with her family, an English setter named Marcie and Galaxy, the most curious cat she’s ever met. You can connect with her on her website: heatheradamsworshipwalk.com