Speaking Up About Mental Health

By Dick Koehneke

As the new year begins, I invite you to think purposefully and creatively about ways the local church can be a safe place for conversations about issues related to mental health.  At least one in five Americans (possibly as many as one in four) is experiencing some form of mental illness right now:  depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, ADHD, phobias, OCD, bipolar disorders, PTSD and others – in addition to such behavioral health issues as substance abuse, addictions, and eating disorders.  Mental and behavioral health issues directly or indirectly affect many of us and the people we serve. 

Many people struggling with mental and behavioral illness turn to their pastor first for help.  Yet most pastors (62 % in a recent survey) do not feel equipped to identify such illnesses and make appropriate referrals.  In another recent survey, 45% of regular church attenders said they believed they would not be welcome in their congregations if they acknowledged that they are having a mental health issue.  Ponder that one for a moment.  You may want to read it again.   

We need to silence the stigma around mental illness and start (or continue and expand) the conversation about ways to help.     

On November 8 in Fort Wayne, Indiana some 550 people from 125 congregations attended an all-day conference titled “Speak Up:  A Conference on the Church and Mental Health.”  This was the first conference on this topic in this geographical area.  More would have attended, but the conference center’s capacity is 550.  The primary sponsor of the conference was The Lutheran Foundation of northeast Indiana, with support and participation by several other organizations and groups. 

The conference task force developed this purpose statement for the conference:  “In the Spirit of Christ, we encourage the Christian faith community to speak openly about mental health in ways that lead to practical expressions of care and companionship for all.”  There were four key words for the conference:  Awareness, Education, Resources, and Action.  The first three were strongly in evidence at the conference.  Now comes the “Action” part!  Here are some resources that were shared at the conference  to help us take action. 

http://mentalhealthgateway.org/ is a website with this purpose statement:  “This website is a resource for clergy designed to provide you with the information, tools and training needed to effectively assist individuals with mental health difficulties such as anxiety disorders, bipolar disorders, and depressive disorders who may seek your support.”  It’s a gold mine of information and resources for pastors and other people who want to be helpful to individuals dealing with mental health issues.  The website is supported by the Hope and Healing Center and Institute in Houston, TX.  Dr. Matthew Stanford is the Institute’s CEO.  He was one of the two excellent main speakers at the November 8 Conference, speaking about “A Clinical and Biblical Perspective on Mental Illness.” 

Speaking on “Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission” was Amy Simpson, the other main conference speaker.  She is an author, speaker, and leadership coach who lives in the Chicago area.  You may want to be in touch with her to discuss how she could be a resource for you.  Here’s her website:  http://amysimpson.com/

A new resource to support pastors was introduced at the conference.  It’s the Full Strength Network, a nondenominational Christian organization serving pastors and their families.  Here’s their website:  https://fullstrength.org/  If you’re a pastor or a member of a pastor’s family, or if you’re someone who cares about the wellbeing of pastors and their families, please pay it a visit.  I think you’ll want to come back often.  Their motto is:  “Healthy pastors lead healthy churches.  Healthy churches change the world.” 

In the new year of 2018 let’s silence the stigma surrounding mental illness.  Let’s speak openly about mental health in ways that lead to practical expressions of care and companionship for all.  God grant His abundant blessings to you and through you to the people whose lives you touch!