Are churches blind to mental illness?

shutterstock_182299751Several years 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. I’d like to take a closer look at some of the key findings from this study and the implications for churches as they seek to connect with families of kids with hidden disabilities. Here’s a look at the 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.

shutterstock_12866266The 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 church programming on a regular basis?


KM Logo UpdatedKey Ministry has assembled resources to help churches more effectively minister to children and adults with ADHD, anxiety disorders, Asperger’s Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, depression and trauma. Please share our resources with any pastors, church staff, volunteers or families looking to learn more about the influence these conditions can exert upon spiritual development in kids, and what churches can do to help!

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, was ranked fourth among the top 100 children's ministry blogs in 2015 by Ministry to Children.
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3 Responses to Are churches blind to mental illness?

  1. Ken says:

    In my experience churches have been blind to mental illness. I was caught off guard by a church I attended many years ago when a family member had break down and was hospitalized for several weeks. When I sought help from the church and even by the pastoral staff, I was for the most part blown off and would not talk to me. Granted I was not very involved in the church and I was not well known by the leadership in the church, but I did attend regularly and tithed to this church. It was extremely difficult time in trying to help out my family member. My family member was having major problems with over spiritualizing things and needed some answers that the church was not willing to provide. I found the medical community a greater help than the actual church. The picture of the guy with hands on his face in this article perfectly portrayed me at that time. Because of that experience, I did not step back into another church until a year later. However, several years later I found a church that had a support group for those who have mental illness or supporters for someone who had family member or a friend with mental illness. This group was a great help, but I think it is probably very rare to find a group like this in any church. The group only was together for a couple of years before the leader decided she no longer could continue leading it. Since, then I have found no other support groups like this in any churches.
    From what I know, mental illness within the church is something that is hardly understood. There is a bad stigma that goes along with mental illness to those who have it to cause a fear that they will be labeled incorrectly or rejected with their illness. Therefore, it is not talked about in church which is sad. They are ordinary and good people, but suffer with problems with their thoughts and they need help, love and support. I believe there is probably more people in churches suffering from Bi-polar Disorder, etc than are actually known, but they feel like they can’t share because fear of being judged incorrectly. Therefore, they live very isolated. The help that is available comes mostly from the medical community which I am very thankful for, but is often tainted from a secular viewpoint. It would be nice to see the church more involved and become more welcoming to those who have mental illness. Thanks for sharing this study.


  2. Anne says:

    This is a good topic to address. I think any disability that requires a long haul commitment from any church body is really difficult. Many people do not really know what a family needs. Many special needs families become isolated which increases some of their stress! I encourage everyone with a heart for special needs to attend a Joni & Friends Family Retreat. This is a living example of how the church can rise to the challenge of supporting all disabilities, We were sponsored as a special needs family to go! That is another practical way to come along side a family.


  3. John says:

    I think churches are blind from what I’ve seen and from what I’ve heard. Too often we hear, you just need more faith or get right with God.

    So many seem to be ignorant of the fact that Martin Luther who wrote A Mighty Fortress is Our God suffered with depression his entire life and his writing about about his observations of those with a mental illness and advice to Lutheran clergy was ahead of his time.
    See article on Luther and Depression

    Pentecostals and Charismatics who believe that mental illness is cause by demons, need to read the part of a book written by a pastor about his brother who suffers from schizophrenia.
    Differentiating schizophrenia from demon influence

    Pastors and churches need to evaluate themselves using.
    How to Rate Your Faith Community (Adapted from criteria established by the Presbyterian Serious Mental Illness Network)

    Click to access RateFaithCommunity.pdf

    There are two good books on this subject.

    Carlson, Dwight L. Why Christians Shoot Their Wounded?:Helping (Not Hurting) Those with emotional Difficulties. Inter-Varsity, 1994.

    Albers, Robert H., Steven D.Thurber, William H. Meller. (editors) Ministry With Persons With A Mental Illness And Their Families. Ausburg/Fortress Press, 2012.
    This book is written by both mental illness professionals and pastors/theologians. I’ve not seen anything like this concerning the ministry of the church.

    If the church was not blind to this, the book Reaching the De-Churhed would not have to mention this as one reason people become de-churched in one of its chapters.

    Furthermore, due to the stigma about mental illness in society and the church there are more clergy than you might think who struggle in secrete with depression, bipolar disorder or anxiety which they dare not share without fear of loosing their pulpit.


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