Opening Our Minds: The Church and Mental Health
Admitting our vulnerability can be uncomfortable. But if we take an honest look at Scripture, we discover God motivates vulnerable people like you and me to love other vulnerable people by becoming vulnerable for them. Vulnerability is not a curse but rather the key to connection and community.
In Genesis 2:18, God declared, “It is not good for the man to be alone.” God created humans with an innate need for one another. Community is an invitation to participate in life together, complete with all the differences that make us who we are as unique beings. Though many in the local church can appreciate community in theory, its implementation and practice are often a different story. Many people living with mental illness can testify to this fact.
Mental illness is simultaneously overlooked and often stigmatized in local church settings. According to Scott McConnell, executive director of Lifeway Research, a 2021 survey showed that “While preaching on mental illness is the norm and even more pastors feel their church is responsible to help the mentally ill, still 37% of pastors rarely or never bring it up from the pulpit.”¹ This culture of silence must change for us to experience the community and connection God desires for us in the local church.
Four ways we can change the conversation about mental illness in the church
1. Normalize discussion about mental health.
If a particular church is not discussing mental health or mental illness, the congregation will assume it is not a high priority for those in leadership. Encourage your pastor to find opportunities to talk about it from the pulpit regularly. Plan to have systematic studies about it in your small groups. Offer training on mental health, abuse, and becoming trauma-informed for those who would like to learn more. Create and provide a list of mental health resources and services available in your area. By addressing mental illness from the pulpit and in groups, you give the congregation multiple connection points to enter the conversation.
2. Reach out to local nonprofits and social services in your community.
You don’t have to do this work alone. There are likely many organizations and service providers in your community you can contact. Google “mental health” plus “nonprofits” and your zip code. Set up a meeting to learn more. Invite the organization or service provider to offer training at your church.
3. Offer counseling in your church.
Though talking to your church and your community is a start, confidential mental health services are also crucial. Reach out to local counseling centers, establish a relationship with them, and refer people to them.
4. Embrace your vulnerability.
It’s difficult to discuss the mental health of others when we neglect our own. By addressing our issues, we are better poised to engage with others. Choosing to process through your brokenness, pain, anxiety, and disillusionment will lead to self-awareness. As we become acquainted with our frailty, the boundary between “us” and “them” will fade, and we will realize that it’s just us. We’re all living with the tangible effects from the Fall. Understanding what we bring to the conversation helps provide an equal footing as we talk to others in our communities.
Our Words Matter
The words we say matter. In many cases, we hurt people around us without even knowing. Here are a few things we should avoid saying and what we can say instead:
- Avoid saying the phrases “suffering from” or “battling” mental illness, which convey a negative connotation. Instead, you can say “living with a mental illness” to unlock empathy, compassion, and many other positive things.
- Avoid using words like crazy, nuts, or schizophrenic in conversation to describe things that do not pertain to mental health. Though these statements may be casual to you, they can send a stigmatized message to someone living with a mental illness.
- Avoid saying things like “pray harder” or “if only your faith were stronger, you wouldn’t struggle with [fill in the blank].” This statement is shame-inducing and accuses rather than heals. Instead, if you have built the relational capital with the person, offer to pray with him or her. Remind others of how Christ lived, died, and rose in their place. Focus on what was done for them rather than what you feel they should do.
- The Bible tells us to be quick to listen and slow to speak. Being thoughtful about the words we say can make the difference between someone engaging further with the church or feeling rejected.
Raleigh Sadler founded and serves as the executive director of Let My People Go, a national ministry focused on empowering the local church to address human trafficking. He is the author of two books, Vulnerable: Rethinking Human Trafficking and The Let My People Go Handbook.
Disclaimer: The information shared on this page is not meant to diagnose or treat a mental health condition. We encourage you to follow up with your health-care provider and seek a mental health professional for individual consultation and care.