Amid renewed discussion about how to reach individuals struggling with mental illness, it is time for local churches – pastors, lay leaders, and individual Christians – to embrace their position on the “front line” of promoting mental health.
Following the tragic shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, national attention has turned yet again to whether the government is doing enough to assist those struggling with mental health issues. CBS News reports the Trump administration says it is “actively exploring” the possibility of expanding Medicaid coverage to ensure those in need receive necessary treatment for their mental illness. This is a positive and healthy conversation.
But beyond the realm of public policy, the Church has a practical part to play, too. This truth is nothing new. For example, Paul the Apostle examined Christians’ responsibility to extend Christ-like care to others, whatever form this may take:
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.” (2 Corinthians 1:3-5, ESV)
Specifically when it comes to mental health, research established decades ago that the Church served on the “front line.” Dr. E. Mansell Pattison wrote in the first chapter in Community Mental Health: The Role of Church and Temple, published in 1970:
Following World War II the American public became aware of the long neglected needs of the mentally ill. Among the major studies that ensued from the enactment of the National Mental Health Study Act in 1955 was a comprehensive analysis of the role of clergy and the churches in mental health. The results demonstrated that the clergy were on the front line of contact with people in emotional distress.
This premise seems so well accepted that even secular liberal outlet Vox published a post in October 2017 headlined, “Christian faith communities are often on the front lines of mental health care.” They followed up with the sub-header: “Churches have a huge responsibility to people living with mental health issues. Are they living up to it?”
Sadly, the evidence seems to suggest the answer to the question posed by Vox is generally, “No.” Some church circles (e.g., within United Methodism and Presbyterianism) appear to poses at least a theoretical understanding of the part churches can play in promoting mental health.
However, a newly release study by the Barna Group suggests that the Church does not do enough to assist those in need. Americans increasingly feel comfortable with going to a professional counselor and confirm they benefit from doing so. But doctors, family, and friends – not pastors or those engaged in church ministry – are the ones referring people to see counselors. According to Barna:
Pastoral recommendations rank low as catalysts to begin counseling, although “unsurprisingly” it is more likely for practicing Christians (14%) than it is for non-practicing Christians (3%) and non-Christians (1%). These numbers may reflect a pastor’s reticence in recommending counseling rather than individuals’ lack of willingness to seek or act on such a recommendation.
Another major problem identified by Barna is the “stigma within Christian circles, as many churches have been slower to accept mental illness as a legitimate struggle requiring professional help.”
Mental health is a legitimate issue, one that deserves serious attention within the Church. Indeed, pastors and churchgoers – often intimately aware of the spiritual, emotional, and mental condition of Christians in their community – can provide needed encouragement for members to see a professional counselor.
Moreover, Christians can help on a very practical level, too. Relatively lower income individuals say concerns about cost deter them from seeing a counselor, even though they want to, according to Barna. So if local churches are looking for a way to help, they could help defer these costs through generously helping to pay for members to see professional counselors.
Indeed, Christians are called to express love through generosity to their brother and sisters in Christ. This type of giving replicates the love Christians received through Christ and serves as a test for whether an individual has genuinely responded the Gospel:
“By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.” (1 John 3:16-18, ESV)
So as the dialogue continues about mental health in America, the Church should take time to consider how it can renew its efforts to make a positive difference. It is time to examine our hearts to repent of holding any stigma against mental illness, engage in conversation with those in need, and generously use our God-given resources to help those seeking treatment.