Faith, mental health, and the rumor of grace
May 6, 2019
Earlier this year, just weeks removed from having been hospitalized for depression, Michael Gerson delivered the sermon at Washington National Cathedral. Gerson, a Washington Post columnist and former aide and speechwriter to President George W. Bush, spoke eloquently about the depths he had plumbed and about “the experience of transcendence we cannot explain, or explain away.”
Gerson confessed a desire to live a more disciplined and mature Christian life, his failure to do so, and the persistence of doubt. “Faith, thankfully, does not preclude doubt,” he noted. “It consists of staking your life on the rumor of grace.”
Gerson encouraged anyone with undiagnosed depression to seek help, noting, “there is no way to will yourself out of this disease, any more than you can will yourself out of tuberculosis.”
One in five Americans annually experience mental health issues ranging in severity from temporary psychological distress to serious depression, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder. Of this number, four in ten adults and just over half of children aged 8-15 receive appropriate care, often because of stigma associated with these illnesses and their treatments.
Pastors can help address this disconnect between need and appropriate care by doing what Gerson did, preaching and speaking about mental illness with directness and compassion from the pulpit. As Megan Snell writes, “when I speak frankly about depression from the pulpit, breaking the silence of mental illness, people respond with tearful gratitude for having their own life experience finally spoken about from the place of spiritual authority in our worship spaces.”
One in five Americans annually experience mental health issues. Of this number, four in ten adults and just over half of children aged 8-15 receive appropriate care. Pastors can help address this disconnect between need and appropriate care by preaching and speaking about mental illness with directness and compassion from the pulpit.
Speaking and preaching will only take a congregation so far. Real and sustained progress requires a change in cultures that demand people hide a part of who they are. “We must become congregations in which people are welcome to be their whole selves,” Snell writes. “When we do the work of making our congregations welcoming to those with mental illness, we can live into a vision of the fullness of the body of Christ, accompanying all and excluding none.”
May is Mental Health Awareness Month, a good time to consider starting or expanding a mental health ministry in your church and community. There are several organizations and resources that can help.
The American Psychiatric Association’s Mental Health and Faith Community Partnership offers “Mental Health: A Guide for Faith Leaders” and a companion quick reference guide. Interfaith Network on Mental Illness has produced a video series for clergy and other resources.
Mental Health Ministries offers educational resources, an e-newsletter, and links to denominational and national working group efforts on faith and mental illness.
Pathways to Promise, on whose board I serve, seeks to facilitate the faith community’s work in reaching out to those with mental illness and their families. Through training, consultation, and other resources, Pathways encourages congregations to become supportive and caring communities for those with mental health conditions.
Near the close of his sermon, Gerson noted, “Many, understandably, pray for a strength they do not possess. But God’s promise is somewhat different: That even when strength fails, there is perseverance. And when perseverance fails, there is hope. And even when hope fails, there is love. And love never fails.”
That’s a message we can embrace and extend to all, including those living with mental health conditions and their families. In so doing, we will help reduce stigma and increase the number of those receiving appropriate care.
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