Giving mental health awareness the right place in the church

Rev. Alan R. Rudnick

April 17, 2020

Recently my Facebook feed was full of expressions of grief, support, and lament over two very public deaths. Both people were active in bringing a focus on mental health issues in communities. One was a professor of counseling, and the other was a well-known West Coast pastor, Jarrid Wilson. Both died by suicide. These two people join the list of very public suicides in recent years, including fashion designer Kate Spade, chef Anthony Bourdain, and comedian Robin Williams.

The above names and their stories are anecdotal evidence of statistics that are shocking. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in the United States alone in 2017, there were more than twice as many suicides (47,173) as there were homicides (19,510).[i]  According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 9.8 million adults had serious thoughts of committing suicide, 2.8 million adults made suicide plans, and 1.3 million attempted suicide in 2017. [ii] These are genuinely alarming numbers.

On the average Sunday morning a congregant may hear a sermon on being kind to strangers or a story about Jesus from the gospels, but how many sermons have you heard on mental health or suicide? Most likely none. And yet, the national suicide rate has increased 33 percent between 1999 and 2017.[iii] This is a public health crisis.

How many sermons have you heard on mental health or suicide? Most likely none. And yet, the national suicide rate has increased 33 percent between 1999 and 2017. This is a public health crisis. 

Not only are adults being affected by socioeconomic changes, young people are experiencing the pain. Among 10 to 18-year-olds, suicide is the second-leading cause of death in the United States.[iv] Jean M. Twenge, PhD, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, wrote about the growing trend of anti-social behavior, teen suicide, depression, and changes in the emotional state of young people. Her research led her to publish the book: iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy–and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood–and What That Means for the Rest of Us. Dr. Twenge discovered that:

“Psychologically… [the iGens, born between 1995 and 2012] are more vulnerable than Millennials were: Rates of teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed since 2011. It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades… Since 2007, the homicide rate among teens has declined, but the suicide rate has increased. As teens have started spending less time together, they have become less likely to kill one another, and more likely to kill themselves. In 2011, for the first time in 24 years, the teen suicide rate was higher than the teen homicide rate.”[v]

Coupled with the rise of suicides, the opioid epidemic has gripped America’s cities, suburbs, and rural areas. Research by Princeton University economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton points to a rise in mental and physical anguish as America’s economy experiences growing inequality and insecurity, with the atrophy of the middle class.[vi]   

As Christians, we must recognize that these trends, statistics, and facts have serious implications for our children, adults, and families in our churches. This is a moral problem that requires Christians to respond. In our churches, we have such a lack of support and understanding of mental health. In our culture and in our churches, there is a stigma attached to people who need to see a counselor, therapist, or psychiatrist. Most pastors are not trained psychologists or therapists. We do receive some courses on psychology and counseling in seminary but those are basic. 

Years ago, in a church I served in, I listened to a woman who came for pastoral help. She told of her problems with her health and family. She shared the weight of her mental anguish. I offered the church’s assistance with meals, rides to appointments, and for folks to help her with other arrangements. I offered pastoral care and the aid of our deacons through this difficult time. I gave her the name of a non-profit center that could help with her mental health needs. She paused, hesitated, and stammered to say, “I…have such a hard time… asking for help. There’s so much on my mind. Thank you.” This interaction was rare with congregants but was common among people coming off the street with no connection to the church.

I find that most people in church keep their mental health needs secret. They do not want to even share their struggles with close friends for fear of judgment. Men, especially, are reluctant to disclose their troubles because they do not want to be seen as “weak.” Many Christians want to keep a face or appearance of “everything’s great” but do not have the capacity or opportunity to say, “Help!”

Churches are not often equipped as professional mental health centers, but we can do some simple things to create a hospitable culture for those in anguish. Our churches need to be structured and conditioned in such a way to respond with grace, compassion, and love to those who are struggling. We must work to end the stigmas attached to the needs of mental health. Church leaders and pastors must preach the gospel of good mental health as well as good spiritual health. Churches need to hold seminars, small groups, and public forums that share stories, resources, and opportunities for those in economic, personal, or emotional turmoil. Churches and para-church organizations can partner with local mental health professionals, hospitals, counselors, and help groups to coordinate programs that can be hosted at churches.  

Our churches need to be structured and conditioned in such a way to respond with grace, compassion, and love to those who are struggling with their mental health. 

Jesus was someone who was in constant connection to those in anguish, despair, and turmoil. For those who sought out Jesus, we read that they were looking for wholeness and good news. Some were outcasts, lepers, the “unclean” according to Jewish law, people suffering untreatable medical conditions, and the economically vulnerable. As Christians, we must not overlook the need to bring mental health to the forefront of our ministries to those in our church and our community.

The Rev. Alan Rudnick is an American Baptist minister, author and Th.D. student at La Salle University, Philadelphia. He is a former member of the board of directors for American Baptist Home Mission Societies, Board of General Ministries and Mission Council of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. First published in The Christian Citizen, October 14, 2019.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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