In the fifth installment of our series, Ten Strategies for Promoting Mental Health Inclusion at Church, Joe Padilla (CEO and Co-Founder Mental Health Grace Alliance) discusses the rationale for, and benefits of mental health support groups through the local church.
“The common denominator in mental health recovery is community.”
In the 1990’s, William Anthony Ph.D. of Boston University researched the key factors that contributed to mental illness recovery … and in every case “community” was one of the crucial factors. Dr. Anthony’s research serves to reinforce the transformative and biblical principles of community.
All through the New Testament we are taught to “sink into” and live out our life in Christ in order to serve, love, care, and humbly get along with one another (e.g. Romans 15:2, 1 Corinthians 12:25, Philippians 2.3-4). Apply this type of environment to anyone in distress … and you have a community that will transform lives.
“Mental Health support in the church is on the rise …this changes the whole game.”
Why has the topic of mental illness been avoided in the church? First, we need to give pastoral leaders a break. When someone is suffering they don’t go to a pastor saying they are coming down with “Major Depressive Disorder,” instead they are complaining of a spiritual difficulty … “I can’t connect with God, my spouse, and my family … when I pray I feel overwhelmed and confused … I’m at a loss in my faith, what do I do?” Both the congregant and the pastor are not talking about or looking for a mental health problem.
We also need to give grace for unaware leaders who have not been educated and subtetly let stigma bleed into their own concerns … “It’s too hard, it’s messy, and there are many liability issues.”
This is an opportunity to educate, train, and walk with these leaders into new vision, not criticize them. We are seeing leaders starting understand and to advocate for changing the future of the church!
Mental health community support in the church is on the rise and this changes the whole game! As we see more and more influential church leaders share their personal or family experience, the conversation is beginning to take shape in the church. We’re beginning to see a turning of the tide. We’ve not fully arrived with the change we want to see and there are some leaders who are stuck in stigma and completely resistant. However I am encouraged because we are busy working with many churches, ministries, and organizations all over the world. I have hope!
How did these churches, ministries, and organizations get there? Here are five steps they are making progress with launching real and solid mental health support.
- Education to Realize the Need. Church leaders first take the time in their leadership meetings to be educated. They bring in a professional or organization representative to have the overall education and the honest conversation. They start to see the need and make the connection within their ministry programs. Eventually, this leads to training the staff with education and tools.
- Vision to Realize Practical Hope. Leaders like to see the vision and the research because with a topic like this they want to trust the experts, not a passionate ideal. During the education meetings we especially like to show the data on why and how simple mental health recovery can work. It puts hope into reality and practical tools. They now feel educated and equipped to move forward.
- Identified Catalyst Leaders to Build. These leaders are very strategic. Thus, they looked for catalysts (volunteers) that could help build the support. Many times these catalyst are the very ones that originally brought it to their attention. These catalysts have the energy and heart to get things started … and their pastors are behind them with full support. These catalysts organize others to get involved … the church is blessed to have them.
- Built support by starting with families and then peers. There are usually more families ready and willing to participate more than peers. With the momentum and the growth from the family support, there will be others who rise up to launch the support for peers. However, in some cases both family and peer groups have started at the same time.
Now, you might be asking, “What type of support groups do you start with?”
Stay with Curriculum Focused Support, Not Share Groups. Share groups focus on relational conversations and do not follow a particular structure. The good news is that these groups build strong relationships … the bad news is they turn into discouraging venting groups. Research reveals these groups are not effective; they focus on co-rumination over problems that reinforce aggression, maladaptive thoughts, depression and anxiety. Groups that follow a particular curriculum or guide have more effective results with relationships and personal growth (health).
Here are the best options:
- Principle Based: These are the groups that follow discussion and build around key principles or steps. This is much like AA or Celebrate Recovery groups, however those groups do not specifically address “mental illness.” A group called, “Fresh Hope,” follows this format for bipolar / depression building on faith “tenants” (principles). This group incorporates both family and peers in the same group.
- The Education Class: The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) provides free courses called Family to Family or Peer-to-Peer. It does not offer answers or build on faith concepts, however these classes provide rich and helpful information that has benefited many. These classes work well in conjunction with these next two options.
- Education & Tools: These groups provide psycho-education materials, skills and tools to specifically work to improve mental health wellness and recovery. Dr. Matthew Stanford and I (Joe Padilla) designed our mental health support groups (Family, Peers, Trauma/PTSD) with this format and designed to work in any denomination. We have published research showing the efficacy of the peer groups.
“With education and support in the church a pastor can easily talk about “it” (mental illness) from the pulpit.”
- They Talk about “It” from the Front and Empower the Church.
Research tells us that on any given Sunday, 27% are dealing with mental illness themselves or a loved one (Stanford 2011). Will they hear it from the front and where do they go for more support? The church can be that place to learn and be supported.
With education and support in the church a pastor can easily talk about “it” (mental illness) from the pulpit. I know of a church in Seattle that did a whole month series titled, “Depression is Real.” The pastor educated and gave hope! Other large churches publish articles in their church magazine and blogs. I also personally know people who wept with encouragement when they heard both mental illness and hope preached from the front of their church. Then, to know there’s a refuge of support through the church … that’s pioneering real church growth.
People with mental health difficulties first come to the church before going to any professional … the church can be the gateway for mental health change … the game changer for the world … impacting the way we relieve suffering, reveal Christ, and restore lives!
To learn more about expanding your church’s capacity to offer mental health support, contact Joe or a member of his team at Mental Health Grace Alliance.
Key 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!