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.