Why the church and the mental health system should work together

This coming Thursday, I’ve been invited to speak at an event sponsored by the Stark County Mental Health and Addiction Recovery Board as part of their Cultural Influence and Health Care series focusing on faith-based culture and community. The event will be held in the Johnson Center of Malone University in Canton, Ohio and is free and open to the public. Click here if you’re interested in attending.

My talk is titled Helping Churches Support Individuals and Families Affected by Mental Illness and is different from any other presentation I’ve done on this topic in that I’m speaking with clinicians working in the mental health system as opposed to church leaders. There are lots of reasons why churches and mental health service providers should work together. Whether these partnerships are possible in the current cultural climate is an entirely different question.

If I were an executive director of a local mental health board, I can think of lots of reasons why I’d be interested in building relationships with church leaders in the area I served. According to a study in the journal Health Services Research:

  • Approximately one quarter of persons seeking care turn to a member of the clergy before contacting a mental health service provider.
  • More people with mental health issues turn to clergy than psychiatrists.
  • One in six persons who approach clergy for help are experiencing serious mental illness.
  • The intensity of care and support provided by churches often doesn’t match the severity of illness.

Churches provide services and support to a large segment of the population who would otherwise increase demands on the mental health system. At the same time, mental health professionals and leaders have an interest in seeing that the care provided by churches is of high quality and meets the needs of those being served.

Churches have an incentive to partner with individual mental health practitioners and organizations in the communities they serve. According to the LifeWay Study of Acute Mental Illness and Christian Faith, among adults surveyed with acute mental illness:

  • 69% want churches to help families find local resources for support and dealing with the illness.
  • 59% want churches to talk about it openly so the topic is not so taboo.
  • 57% want churches to improve people’s understanding of mental illness.
  • 55% want churches to provide training for members to better understand mental illness.
  • 53% want churches to increase awareness of how prevalent mental illness is today.

Church members want help in finding mental health resources in their local communities. Such assistance may not be as available as church leaders believe. According to the LifeWay study, 68% of pastors believe their churches maintain mental health referral lists, compared to 28% of family members of adults with mental illness.

Church leaders also have a perception problem among outsiders as to whether persons with mental illness will feel welcomed.

Churches need assistance in understanding the needs of persons with mental illness and connecting them with appropriate services. Churches also provide lots free assistance and support to individuals and families served by the mental health system. Lots of low-cost and no-cost counseling. Respite care for families of kids with significant emotional and behavioral disorders. Emergency financial support. After-school programming or tutoring for at-risk kids. Safe and healthy peer group environments for kids who need more friends.  It makes too much sense for churches and the mental health system to form mutually beneficial partnerships

Here are four broad areas that appear ripe for collaboration…

  1. Facilitating referrals. One of the mental health supports church attendees desired according to the LifeWay study was assistance in accessing treatment when necessary. Pastors also need the ability to quickly connect attendees with severe mental illness to the appropriate level of care. Any mental health agency or clinic that depends upon a steady stream of referrals and serves large numbers of people covered by public or private insurance would be well-served from a business perspective to establish a simple and reliable referral process for churches.
  2. Educating pastors and church staff  on the mental health needs of the population they serve. Three specific training areas for which I see a significant need are Mental Health First Aid, assistance in becoming trauma-informed and training for pastors and church staff in evidence-based counseling approaches.
  3. Using churches to promote the availability of mental health supports. In this day and age, even churches of modest size often have substantial social media platforms. Churches can use both their facilities and social media tools to educate the communities they serve about the resources and supports available in the community.
  4. Innovation to serve families affected by mental illness. Churches can be a source of recruitment for therapeutic foster families – or respite for families serving in therapeutic foster care, as well as families to serve kids with mental illness in traditional foster homes. Many kids in faith-based schools have the same need for counseling or case management services that kids receive who are enrolled in public schools.  Churches with a long tradition of supporting development of low-income housing through organizations such as Habitat for Humanity would appear to be natural partners for local mental health boards with limited budgets seeking to provide housing for adults with chronic mental illness.

What if you’re a mental health professional? How can you use your gifts and talents to support your church in ministry with persons with mental health concerns?

Become an advocate for a mental health inclusion strategy in your church.

Volunteer to serve as a mental health liaison in your church. A mental health liaison is someone who can help connect persons in the church in needs of mental health services to appropriate resources in the community who also works with pastors and church leadership to include individuals with mental health issues into worship services and other church activities designed to promote spiritual growth.

Offer to start a mental health support group in your church. Possibilities include…

  • Grace Groups (Mental Health Grace Alliance)
  • Fresh Hope groups (Fresh Hope)
  • Celebrate Recovery (Saddleback Church)
  • NAMI groups

So…where do we start? And why hasn’t this happened already? I’ll look at that issue in more detail in next Sunday’s post.

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In Mental Health and the Church: A Ministry Handbook for Including Children and Adults with ADHD, Anxiety, Mood Disorders, and Other Common Mental Health Conditions, Dr. Stephen Grcevich presents a simple and flexible model for mental health inclusion ministry for implementation by churches of all sizes, denominations, and organizational styles. The book is also designed to be a useful resource for parents, grandparents and spouses seeking to promote the spiritual growth of loved ones with mental illness. Available now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, ChristianBook and other fine retailers everywhere.

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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