Pastoral Care and Mental Illness

Understanding mental illness and how to help a loved one experiencing it is a difficult challenge for friends and family… and clergy. In times of struggle and crisis, many families turn to their pastors, rabbis and priests for support; however, not all clergy are trained in the effective ways they can support their parishioners. Just as stigma has prevented conversations about mental illness in secular settings, it has also limited conversations in sacred spaces, too.

A few months ago we shared a blog article about the intersection of faith and mental health and how families should not be afraid to integrate the two. But how do you help your faith leaders gain a better understanding of mental health so they can better support you and their congregation?

Change their perspective

Pam Rocker, Affirming Coordinator for Hillhurst United Church in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, had this to say, “… mental health is often erroneously intertwined with weakness or lack of willpower,” Many [Christians] are not encouraged to seek counseling, but instead are encouraged to pray harder and have more faith.” Fortunately, as mental illness becomes better understood, faiths of all kinds are redirecting their efforts to minister to the mentally ill. The United Methodist Church is just one of those faiths, and it has declared that part of its responsibility is to promote the development of pastoral leadership skills to understand mental illness.

Religious communities are in a unique position to combat stigma and provide a message of acceptance and hope. In fact, a faith community may be the only place where a person with a mental illness can feel accepted, valued, and loved.

Direct them to resources and ways to help

Fortunately, there is a wealth of resources available to help religious leaders strengthen their abilities to provide pastoral care to congregants experiencing a mental illness in meaningful ways. If someone you care for is one of those congregants, these are suggestions from Mental Health Ministries that you can share with your clergy:

  • Always be respectful of confidentiality. In the case of mental health, it is the law.
  • Have a plan for what to do if you are faced with a crisis situation.
  • When someone appears to be in danger of hurting themselves or someone else, don’t hesitate to call 911.
  • Educate yourself about various mental illnesses and their symptoms.
  • Keep an up-to-date list of agencies to which you can refer someone for additional help.

The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention shared some key ways in which clergy and their congregations can help support individuals experiencing mental illness. Clergy can teach a balanced view of mental illness as a part of an ongoing education process. Mental health does not need to be the “focal point of the church” in order for the church to effectively disciple people in the care of their interconnected mind, soul, and body. Consider befriending someone who is struggling with mental illness. We often fail to realize that no professional qualifications are required to be a friend. 

The following links provide additional resources and guidance, including downloadable toolkits.

Mental Health Ministries

Pathways to Promise

UMC Health Ministry Network

As we all know, our faith leaders are inundated with demands of many forms, so do not feel discouraged if it takes some time to bring their attention to this topic.Faith leaders have a heart for those who suffer and if you are in the unique position of being a parent or a patient, you will certainly be a major factor in empowering them to bring change.

With an eye to the best for our kids,

Michele Brown

Michele Autenrieth Brown is the Vice President of Marketing and Development at Clarity Child Guidance Center. She became passionate mental health advocate after trying to navigate the system of care to support a family member. When she is not shuttling kids to practices or spending time with her husband, Michele is perfecting just what to say to get the perfect eye roll and sigh from her teen and pre-teen children.

If you are experiencing an emergency, please call 9-1-1. If you need help locating mental health resources in your area, visit the Bexar County Community Resource website, call your local health department or the National Alliance Mental Illness's helpline at 800-950-NAMI (6264).