By Angela Dueck
“I can’t quite explain how distressing it was to have to go through the process of discovering I had mental illness while walking alongside well-meaning but ignorant people.”
“Every once in a while I run into people who don’t believe in mental illness and that it is a scam. Other people have told me to pray my depression away. Have even been told I was sinning for being clinically depressed as I should just think happy thoughts.”
“Silence is the biggest problem. If you don’t hear about it from others around you then you think you are the only one. You also don’t learn the skills needed to help others suffering.”
“Often when you disclose a mental health disorder then EVERYTHING becomes about that disorder. Every interaction is tinged with it. It’s exhausting for the person with the mental disorder.”
Mental Health in the Church Survey
The above are just a few quotes from people who filled out a survey I created about mental health in the church. The survey received 68 responses, 42 who attend church regularly, two who normally attend church but haven’t during COVID-19, and 17 who used to attend church.
Thirty-eight respondents have struggled with mental health issues for over ten years, nine have struggled for five to ten years, four for one to five years, two for less than a year, and 15 haven’t struggled with mental health issues.
A survey was also sent out to pastors and youth pastors of EMC, EMMC, and MB churches which received 19 responses, 15 of whom have served in a church leadership position for ten years or more.
Mental health has become a more common topic of discussion in society. Yet, of the people who responded to the survey, 55.9% have never heard mental health discussed in church.
This doesn’t mean churches are ignoring it; there seems to be a disconnect between what services and resources churches offer and what church attendees think their churches offer. The chart to the right shows what pastors said their churches offer and what regular church attendees say their churches offer. As indicated, 84.2% of pastors said their churches offer financial help for people to access counseling but only 7.4% of church attendees said their churches offer it. Nearly 40% of church attendees who responded to my survey didn’t know what their churches offer or chose none of the above.
One of the most encouraging things in the survey results was people’s openness to disclose mental health issues to their pastors. Only 19.1% of respondents said they would not be comfortable talking to their pastors about mental health issues. When results are filtered to only respondents who currently attend church, that number drops to 7.8%.
Mental Health Issues Are Common
Churches can’t ignore mental health issues; they affect Christians as well as non-Christians. Just over 32% of those who filled out the regular church attenders survey said they have a diagnosed mental illness and 44.1% of respondents are either currently taking medications for mental health issues or have taken them in the past.
Nearly 56 per cent of respondents said they have struggled with mental health issues for more than 10 years. This demonstrates how common it is for people to struggle with mental health. In the survey for church leaders, 94% said a member of their church has approached them regarding mental health issues, and 63.2% of church leaders said they have had people who don’t attend their church come to them with mental health issues. Mental health issues church leaders reported dealing with include depression (89.5%), anxiety (89.5%), substance abuse (57.9%), ADHD (36.8%), post-traumatic stress disorder (36.8%), bipolar disorder (31.6%), eating disorder (26.3%), schizophrenia (15.8%), obsessive-compulsive disorder (21.1%), and self-harm (5.3%).
What Churches Can Do
What can churches do to respond? An encouraging aspect of the church leaders’ survey is their ability to know their limits. When the issues go beyond what church leaders can handle, they report referring people to more qualified help, while continuing to walk alongside.
However, there are areas of improvement. Churches could advertise a list of mental health professionals or other online resources they recommend, such as in the weekly bulletin or on their website. If churches have a slideshow of announcements or other information before or after a service, they could include a slide or two with some mental health resources.
Start a support group. This doesn’t have to be led by the pastor or someone who has a master’s degree in counselling. I have a three-year bachelor’s degree from Steinbach Bible College and have taken some counselling courses, but I am not a pastor or a counsellor. I lead a mental health support group in my church with their support. There are materials available that can be used to incorporate mental health, faith and practical ideas for how to live in recovery. One of the biggest purposes of a support group is for people to not feel alone in their struggle.
Another thing churches could do is to talk more about mental health. Have guest speakers in to speak during the church service or Sunday School, or have a special event on a different day, such as a workshop. Incorporate the topic of mental health into sermons—either a sermon on that topic or as an example within a sermon on another topic. Have someone who is living a victorious life with mental illness or has come through a dark time, share their testimony. Encourage Bible study groups to do a study on mental health.
Churches that offer financial support so people can access professional counseling services may want to advertise it so more people are aware of this option—this one can pose difficulties. Churches only have so much money available and it will often be based on a case-by-case basis so it may not be offered to everyone.
I would encourage anyone struggling with mental health to talk to your pastor. They can encourage you, refer you to someone who is better equipped to help you, possibly offer financial help for counselling, and more. You may not know what they can do for you until you talk to them.
To all church attendees, I would charge you with this: educate yourself about mental health issues and be aware of what perception you give regarding mental health issues. If someone is struggling with their mental health and they don’t hear you talk about mental health or they hear you talk negatively about it, they aren’t likely going to see you as a safe person.
Angela Dueck (Morrow Gospel Church) has a Bachelor of Christian Studies with a Peer Counselling focus from Steinbach Bible College. She facilitates a mental health support group in her church and has a passion for improving mental health services and awareness in churches.