Prayer and faith are powerful and effective, and anyone who has devoted time to ministry can share stories of miracles large and small. As pastors and lay leaders, we encourage the congregation to turn to prayer at dark moments and trust in God for strength during tough times. We’ve been called to ministry because we know what faith can accomplish and we’re often quick to respond with a simple exhortation when someone reaches out to us. Yet sometimes our words inadvertently deepen the shame that individual is already battling.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tell us nearly a quarter of American adults are affected by mental disorders in any given year, and almost half of Americans will grapple with mental illness at least once during their lives. Take a moment to project those statistics across the faces at your busiest Sunday service and ask yourself who among them is struggling right now. It can be hard to guess, because our society has stigmatized mental illness in ways that drive those who despair into hiding. Politely ask them how they’re doing, and they’ll smile and say “fine” when inside they may be hiding thoughts of suicide or hoping you don’t smell the alcohol on their breath.
Christian faith leaders often have a bad habit. As someone shares a need or mentions a fear, we smile and respond with a platitude. We encourage them to pray even harder, read the Bible more closely, or sometimes brush them aside with the simple admonition that they just need to have more faith. When we do that to someone with a mental health challenge, we don’t help them. Even worse, we make it harder for them to have the courage to tell us what’s really wrong.
We’ve learned a lot about mental health in recent years. Some of our predecessors blamed demons for certain behaviors, but we recognize the effects brain chemistry, trauma, and other factors can have upon any of us. Yet we don’t always acknowledge that reality. The language we use unwittingly worsens the stigmas. When someone chooses suicide, people often say she was battling her demons or was in a dark place. That doesn’t help anyone.
What if we instead of uttering platitudes and tired expressions, we used the opportunity to educate others? Instead of trying to sidestep a suicide as an unfortunate and unavoidable tragedy, what if we used the power of the pulpit to discuss the issue head-on? Who among that quarter of your congregation is responding to the suicide as inspiration to do the same? You can offer him a pleasing platitude, or you can assure him that help is available and asking for it is the right thing to do in our eyes and in God’s.
Plus, when you talk about mental health and remind people it’s not caused by a lack of faith, you deepen your congregation’s understanding. That may encourage some to reach out for the help they need; it may motivate others to be more understanding of a relative or a neighbor. When someone dies from an accident or cancer, their neighbors are quick to show up with casseroles and favors for their families. Shouldn’t we do the same for our church families who are dealing with a suicide? Addiction? Depression?
As a church leader, you play a critical role in building awareness of mental health and supporting the people who need treatment. You share many important messages with your congregation, but few may be as vital as this one. If you first need to deepen your own understanding of mental health or are facing challenges of your own, let’s sit and down and talk.
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Seth Baker served in the church as a youth minister for several years before joining our team as a resident therapist.