Are Churches Blind to Mental Illness?

Several weeks ago, I wrote about a significant study from Edward B. Rogers, Matthew Stanford and Diana Garland  from Baylor University examining the effects of mental illness on families within faith communities. Over the next couple of weeks, I’d like to take a closer look at some of the key findings from this study, other studies examining the ways in which churches respond to mental health issues among members and attendees and the implications for churches as they seek to connect with families of kids with hidden disabilities. Here’s a look at the study abstract:

The present study examined the experiences and values of families caring for a mentally ill loved one within the context of a Christian faith community. Participants (n= 5899) in 24 churches representing four Protestant denominations completed a survey describing their family’s stresses, strengths, faith practices, and desires for assistance from the congregation. Results showed mental illness in 27% of families, with those families reporting twice as many stressors on average. In addition, families with mental illness scored lower on measures of family strength and faith practices. Analysis of desires for assistance found that help with mental illness was a priority for those families affected by it, but ignored by others in the congregation. These results suggest that mental illness is not only prevalent in church communities, but is accompanied by significant distress that often goes unnoticed. Partnerships between mental health providers and congregations may help to raise awareness in the church community and simultaneously offer assistance to struggling families.

Here are some of the significant findings…

  • Among the adults completing the study, participants from families affected by mental illness were more likely to be younger, female, unmarried and to have been attending their current church for a shorter period of time.
  • Family stressors, including financial strain, serious illness or disability of a family member, close friend or relative, setting priorities for use of money, problems balancing work and family, job difficulties and conflicts between parents and children were all significantly more likely among families impacted by mental illness.
  • Members of families affected by mental illness reported praying less consistently and were more likely to report that one or more family members failed to attend church regularly.
  • When asked to identify the top six supports the church can offer families from an inventory of 47 items, families affected by mental illness rated support with mental health second out of 47 items while study participants from unaffected families ranked mental health support 42nd out of 47.

The most obvious take-home points from the study seemed to be that families in which someone was struggling with a mental illness were very desirous of support from their local churches, but members not exposed to mental health issues were basically oblivious to their needs and the presence of mental illness appears to be an impediment to church attendance and regular prayer.

There are lots of limitations to this study. First, the study instruments were distributed at church. Families who had stopped attending church would not have been included. There is no data that differentiates the impact of mental health issues when the study participant is experiencing mental illness as opposed to a family member, or differentiates between mental health issues among children as opposed to adults. There was no attempt to validate mental health diagnoses among family members surveyed, or to quantify the relative impact of specific disorders. The data was drawn from a non-randomized sample.

Nevertheless, the study points out the need for additional research examining the impact of specific mental health conditions on church participation and spiritual growth, along with data evaluating the effectiveness of helps and supports offered by churches to promote inclusion and spiritual growth.

What have you experienced from churches (good and bad) when you or a family member with a mental illness have attempted to attend worship or become involved with regular programming?

About Dr. G

Dr. Stephen Grcevich serves as President and Founder of Key Ministry, a non-profit organization providing free training, consultation, resources and support to help churches serve families of children with disabilities. Dr. Grcevich is a graduate of Northeastern Ohio Medical University (NEOMED), trained in General Psychiatry at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation and in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at University Hospitals of Cleveland/Case Western Reserve University. He is a faculty member in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at two medical schools, leads a group practice in suburban Cleveland (Family Center by the Falls), and continues to be involved in research evaluating the safety and effectiveness of medications prescribed to children for ADHD, anxiety and depression. He is a past recipient of the Exemplary Psychiatrist Award from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Dr. Grcevich was recently recognized by Sharecare as one of the top ten online influencers in children’s mental health. His blog for Key Ministry, www.church4everychild.org was ranked fourth among the top 100 children's ministry blogs in 2015 by Ministry to Children.
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