A new study conducted at Baylor University indicated that families with a mentally ill member would like their congregation to offer more assistance. The study, published in the journal “Mental Health, Religion and Culture,” was the first to look at how mental illness of a family member influences an individual’s relationship with the church.
“Families with mental illness stand to benefit from their involvement with a congregation, but our findings suggest that faith communities fail to adequately engage these families because they lack awareness of the issues and understanding of the important ways that they can help,” said Diana Garland, Ph.D., dean of Baylor’s School of Social Work and co-author of the Baylor study.
The study surveyed nearly 6,000 participants in 24 churches representing four Protestant denominations about their family’s stresses, strengths, faith practices and desires for congregational assistance. Families with mental illness ranked help from the church as a second priority; however, families without mental illness ranked it 42nd on their list of requests from churches.
Per Matthew Stanford, Ph.D., co-author of the study and professor of psychology and neuroscience at Baylor: “The difference in response is staggering, especially given the picture of distress painted by the data…. Families with mental illness reported twice as many problems and tended to ask for assistance with more immediate or crisis needs compared to other families.”
I’m not sure why there exists the great divide between mental health and faith communities. I suspect there are many pastors and religious leaders who still believe that those who pray hard enough will get God on the job and have no need for other treatments. Much like holistic centers, too much emphasis is placed on emotional and spiritual therapies that the physiological underpinnings of mood disorders are forgotten or ignored.
“Mental illness is not only prevalent in church communities,” says Garland, “but is accompanied by significant distress that often goes unnoticed. Partnerships between mental health providers and congregations may help to raise awareness in the church community and simultaneously offer assistance to struggling families.”
Here are a few ideas that I compiled, ways that churches might reach out to families of those with mental illness:
1. Get educated.
According to John Clayton, a well-respected author and speaker who was a devout atheist until his early twenties, “The first thing the Church and its leadership must do is become educated about the mentally ill. Education will remove misconceptions, fear, and prejudice.” It can be as easy as browsing some mental health websites, like Psych Central, MentalHealth.com, Web MD, Revolution Health, and Everyday Health; checking out nonprofit groups such as NAMI (National Alliance for Mental Illness) or DBSA (Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance), and others; visiting a library to see what kinds of literature they have available on mental illness; attending a lecture by an expert in the field at a nearby college; tuning into one of the top 10 psychology videos found on YouTube.com; visiting an expert’s website or blog; and finally, making an appointment to speak to a psychiatrist or psychologist in the area.
2. Talk about it.
I’m disappointed that I don’t hear more about the problem of depression and anxiety in sermons today. I mean, if the landmark survey of over 9,000 people in 2005 published in the Archives of General Psychiatry was accurate in reporting that one in four adults have symptoms of at least one mental disorder each year — typically anxiety and depression — and that nearly half of all Americans suffer from a mental disorder at some point during their lifetime, with only a third of those seeking help, half of which are incorrectly diagnosed, than there are a lot of people in our world that are suffering. Why not address it from the pulpit?
3. Host a support group.
A church is a natural place to host a support group for those gripped by anxiety or depression. Some churches do host such groups, but they don’t mention it in the Sunday bulletin or on the church website–because so many of these are started by an outsider to the church–so most members of the church don’t have a clue it’s going on. There are church groups for widows, singles, young adults, even young moms. Why not host one for folks and/or the family of people dealing with mental illness, and publicize it in the bulletin, on the website, and in fliers visible to the congregation as they enter for worship?
4. Provide literature.
NAMI (National Alliance for Mental Illness) and other nonprofits are usually happy to provide free brochures to churches, doctors’ offices, wellness centers, or any location that would like them handy for folks to pick up on their way in and out of these places. Moreover, most churches have a library of donated books. Why not have available in the library a resource or two for people who want to learn more about depression, anxiety, or another mental illness? For a list of good staples, see my post on recommended books. Churches could even provide a book group for those who want to learn more about mood disorders and discuss related problems.
5. Hold a special service.
A few days ago, a friend of mine and his family talked to a few priests at St. Pat’s Cathedral in Chicago about holding a special service for the intention of those persons and their families suffering from mental illness. I thought it was a beautiful idea.