How pastors can support mental health in the age of COVID-19.

The Barna Group surveyed pastors in mid-April regarding their personal mental and emotional health and the mental health of their congregations. The most significant finding from the survey was that only 30 percent of pastors reported feeling well-equipped to help their people deal with matters of mental or emotional health.

Our ministry team would like every pastor to feel confident in their abilities to support their congregants during the greatest economic and medical crisis most of us have experienced in our lifetimes. Here are nine specific ideas for how pastors and church leaders can help promote the mental health of their people while advancing the Gospel throughout what is likely to be a lengthy period of social, vocational and economic disruption related to COVID-19.

Talk about mental health during your preaching. One of the most encouraging findings from the Barna survey was that 39% of pastors reported they had already preached on the topic of mental health. A Lifeway study on Acute Mental Illness and Christian Faith in indicated that nearly two thirds of family members of persons with mental illness wanted their pastors to talk more openly about the topic at church, while a similar proportion of pastors reported preaching about mental illness “once a year, ” “rarely” or “never.” Preaching on mental health is one of the most direct ways of addressing the stigma associated with the topic and helps attendees feel more comfortable in seeking care and support from others in the church.

Combat social isolation. Our team strongly encourages pastors and church leaders to make available as many opportunities as possible for online interaction. Most churches have found ways of making worship services available online since states have mandated social distancing. We need to go further by making interactive small groups, Bible studies, Christian education, committee meetings and chats available online as well. Any church can make a point of calling and sending cards and letters attendees living in homes where someone is medically compromised and seniors who may be less tech-savvy.Whatever your church can do to in this time to help your people feel more connected will help mitigate increased risk for acute mental health and substance abuse issues.

Increase awareness among your people of how they might find counseling and other mental health services. With May 3rd-9th being Mental Health Week, the church I attend is hosting a chat between our lead pastor and a local psychologist from a Christian-oriented practice as well as an event featuring counselors associated with the church. Ensure that anyone providing counseling or support through your church has access to the technology to continue their work online for as long as social distancing is being practiced. Consider creating or updating your church’s list of mental health resources to identify practitioners and clinics available to see attendees during and after COVID-19..

Support the startup of a Christian-based mental health support group. The Grace Alliance and Fresh Hope are outstanding ministries with well-designed and established models for providing biblically-based support for teens and adults struggling with common mental health issues. Each ministry offers extensive online training for prospective leaders and low or no-cost resources for group participants

Build your church’s care and support resources. Given the numbers of individuals and families who have lost jobs or businesses, serious illness or death or major educational disruptions since the beginning of the pandemic, the need for care and support is likely to exceed your response capacity or that of your church’s staff. Encouraging as many of your people as possible to obtain training in Psychological First Aid is one way of greatly expanding your church’s capacity to respond to surges in demand from persons in crisis. Launching or growing a peer support ministry along the line of Stephen Ministry is more time-intensive, but an appropriate strategy for helping to meeting enduring care and support needs resulting from the pandemic.

Offer practical support. Unemployment is a significant risk factor for both suicide and death by opiate overdose. Helping people find work and navigate an unemployment benefits system grossly unprepared to meet the current demand is one tangible way to help. People need food and short-term rent support. Persons who have lost their jobs may not have the finances to access needed counseling or medicine, even if they still have health insurance through their employers because of high deductibles. Members of your congregation might greatly benefit from financial support to access emergency or short-term mental health care.

Provide opportunities to serve. Research from natural disasters suggests involving vulnerable children in family and community responses during times of potential danger increases resilience, defends against development of helplessness, and may help protect against post-traumatic effects through promoting a sense of agency and self-efficacy. Involving your people in ministry is a tangible way of demonstrating the love of Christ to persons in your church or the surrounding community experiencing acute need while affording them some measure of protection from the trauma often resulting from such impactful events.

Consider developing a mental health inclusion strategy to identify and overcome specific barriers families affected by mental illness might experience in engaging with your church. Recent research tells us families of children with depression, anxiety, ADHD and disruptive behavior disorders are far less likely to ever set foot in a church compared to their unaffected neighbors. Our ministry’s strategy has been to help churches recognize how functional limitations associated with common mental health conditions cause difficulties in meeting expectations for social interaction and behavior across our different ministry environments. A mental health inclusion strategy will help your church reach one of the largest underserved people groups in your surrounding community.

Invite individuals and families impacted by mental illness in the communities you serve to connect with your church. A key finding of the LifeWay study referenced earlier was that 55% of all unchurched adults believe that persons with significant mental illness won;’t new welcomed at church. Here’s a fabulous example of how one church in our home region created a video invite from the founding pastor for members to share through social media with individuals and families impacted by mental illness within their sphere of influence who don’t have a church.

Still uncertain about supporting the mental health needs of your congregation during this time? Our team would be happy to jump on Zoom with you or your ministry team to talk about specifics of your church’s situation. Use this form to contact Catherine Boyle (our mental health ministry director) and note in the form that you’d like to set up a videoconference to discuss next steps for your church. We don’t charge for consultations and seek to provide as many of our resources as possible to churches free of charge. You’ll find lots of additional resources for mental health ministry here, and COVID-19 specific resources here.

If you’re interested in a deeper dive, here’s video from a webinar I participated in this past Tuesday with Kay Warren and Dr.Tim Murphy sponsored by the HHS Office of Faith-Based Partnerships to help pastors and other faith leaders respond to the mental health needs of their people during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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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