4 Ways Churches Can Help With Mental Illness

Welcome back to Antony Sheehan, president of Church Health Center, with his thoughts about how churches can respond to reality of mental illness in their midst and the communities they serve.


Connecting spirituality to issues of mental illness and recovery will not look the same in every congregation, but some broad categories will help both clergy and laypeople consider how to respond to the need for help in incorporating spirituality with less fear of these conditions. Congregations can make a difference by exploring four key areas.

Recognition. Clergy and others in the faith community know people in their real lives. They recognize when someone is in trouble. But do they know what to do? One tool the Church Health Center in Memphis has begun using is Mental Health First Aid, a public education course from the National Council for Community Behavioral Healthcare. Participants learn to recognize risk factors and warning signs and to take concrete action steps to help people in crisis.

Referral. Telling people to pray more and try harder does not work for mental health or recovery any more than it does for diabetes or near-sightedness. And few pastors are trained counselors. Every faith community would benefit from keeping on file a directory of local resources. Sometimes it is enough to help people know where to go. Often, however, they need friendship in the form of help getting there or an invitation to coffee later to talk about how it went.

Recovery. For most people the word recovery connotes a substance use disorder and the reality that people who have experienced addiction remain in recovery for the rest of their lives in the sense that staying sober is a daily choice. People with other forms of mental illness may have a similar experience of choosing every day to pursue activities and treatments that contribute to managing their conditions. Congregations that support exploring spirituality as part of improving wellness, rather than something that happens apart from health, serve their people well. A welcoming, accepting attitude toward all individuals goes a long way.

Renewal. For the one-fourth of the population affected by mental or behavioral disorders, deciding to pursue wellness is no small feat. Living among a community while being transparent about the illness is pure valor. The church offers a refresher course in the truth of God’s love and renewal of belonging and acceptance that satisfies basic human needs. In this context, we feel reinvigorated to choose to pursue wellness for another day.

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4 Lessons We Learn From Jesus About Mental Health

Last year Antony Sheehan joined the Church Health Center as president. He comes to us with a long background in mental and behavioral health. I am pleased to share his reflections today and next week.

What do we see in the life and ministry of Jesus that might help Christian churches respond in ways that bridge spirituality and issues of mental health more effectively? Let me suggest four points of consideration.

1. People came to Jesus for healing, and Jesus healed willingly. The gospel writers tell us that news spread widely of Jesus’ healing miracles, and the list of diseases Jesus healed included conditions like epilepsy and demon possession, which we would put in the category of mental illness today. The question arises whether demon possession and mental illness equate. If we get too distracted with that inquiry, though, we miss the point that the gospel writers present Jesus as interested in healing every manifestation of suffering. People with mental illness came to Jesus, or others brought them, and he healed them.

2. Jesus urged people to “walk the talk.” Jesus said of the Pharisees, “Do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach (Matthew 23:3). People with mental, emotional, or substance disorders often become desperate for healing and will try anything. In our care for them and encouraging their spirituality, we must be careful not to add to their burdens.

3. Jesus included people on the outskirts. The “sinners,” ritually unclean lepers, women and children with no standing in the social structure of the time—Jesus welcomed them all. Acceptance and welcome are at the heart of the gospel. Today we might add people with mental illness to the list of people living in the margins of society, even though the truth is one in four people will see care for a mental illness at some point in their lives. Are we welcoming them?

4. Jesus included healing in his ministry on a consistent basis. Jesus taught about the kingdom of God by telling parables. He also demonstrated the kingdom when he healed. He gave people beautiful pictures of the hope and healing God wants for them.

Churches have these examples in their sacred texts. It is not difficult to see that churches, full of people who believe these teachings, can also be places that embody hope and healing for every kind of illness. Linking healthcare structures with faith communities harnesses the strengths of both.

Why the Church Health Center Will Still Be Here

While legislation will continually be revised and will help with some tools for reforming healthcare, in the end, the delivery of care will not be designed by Washington, state capitals, or any central location. In the end, we need to look out for how we look out for our own neighbors locally in each community.  

The bottom line is that any central reform system cannot replace or make the community efforts unnecessary.  

The Church Health Center will be around for a long time in Memphis because we live out of this conviction that true change that results in improved health happens in communities, not in government offices.

As a community of faith, the work of the Church Health Center gives a lens that puts the world in proper focus. That lens is faith in God’s love.

What’s happening in your community? What’s happening in your congregation that will improve the health of the people who worship there and the people whose lives they meet on their daily paths?  

That’s the question we need to ask for healthcare reform: What’s happening, and how can I be part of it?  

How Old Was Moses When He Died?

During seminary, I was a student chaplain at a Masonic home. An old guy always sat in the back, and before I ever said a word, he called out, “How old was Moses when he died?” This man had been asking this question for about 20 years.

In Deuteronomy 34:7 we read that Moses lived to be 120 years old. That’s a good long life. But what catches my eye more is the notation that “his sight was unimpaired and his vigor had not abated.”

Moses didn’t get to go with God’s people into the promised land, but he had a good death.

We all envision that’s how we’ll die—we’ll live a full, active life, and then one day we won’t wake up.

The truth, though, is that only happens to about 15 percent of people. Another 15 percent will live well but have a stroke or heart attack and not fully recover. They’ll have another episode, recover slightly, and then die. The rest of us—70 percent—will decline with a sort of squiggly, dwindling line marking lower and lower levels of health. In all, it will take eight to ten years to die.  

Early in my practice in Memphis, I treated a man with AIDS. In those days we didn’t have the pharmaceuticals available now, but this man didn’t even want to take the ones we had. He had contracted the virus in an earlier stage of life when he took drugs and was promiscuous. That wasn’t who he was anymore, but the disease caught up with him. While he could have gotten medication through a public assistance program, he didn’t want anyone to know he had AIDS. Instead he told people he had terminal cancer, and fear that God would not forgive him haunted him until the night he died without telling the truth to anyone close to him.

Sadly, his shame kept him both from the embracing support of people who loved him and from facing death certain that he was beloved by God.

I talk about dying well from time to time because preparing to die well is part of living well. We are all going to die. Some of us go through life acting as if we don’t believe that, so we don’t prepare to die well. But understanding that death is part of our human existence helps us look for richness and meaning in our lives and lets love and joy carry us closer to God even in death.  

I love the words of William Sloane Coffin in his book Credo. “The one true freedom in life is to come to terms with death and as early as possible. For death is an event that embraces all our lives. The only way to have a good death is to lead a good life. Lead a good one, full of curiosity, generosity and compassion. And there’s no need at the close of day to rage against the dying of the light. We can go gentle into that good night.”