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5 Ways We Can Make Churches Safer for People With Mental Health Struggles

I remember the first time I ever shared with a fellow church member about my anxiety. We sat together on the edge of her friend’s bed during a church social and I shared about my panic attacks and anxiety. It wasn’t like I’d just realized I had anxiety. But still, I remember the feeling of tentativeness and the fear of betrayal that surged into the pit of my stomach later that night as I thought about what I’d shared.

What will other people at church think of me if they know I’m struggling with anxiety? I wondered. They’ll probably think I’m weak and that I must not be close to God. I shuddered as I imagined the whispers I might overhear in church hallways or the condescending glances I might encounter should other church folks find out.

I couldn’t remember the last time I’d heard someone at church speak openly about their mental health struggles. In fact, I couldn’t remember anyone ever even mentioning mental health, except in hushed whispers when some “black sheep” stayed home from church because of depression or some “poor soul” allowed their fear to “overcome their trust in God.”

Luckily, over the years, the churches I have attended have become more aware of mental health and more encouraging to those who are struggling with mental illnesses. Some have held seminars about depression and made an active point of supporting those attendees, members and visitors alike, who struggle with mental health issues.

However, I think the struggle to bring mental health awareness and conversation into our churches is far from over. In fact, in a recent survey I conducted of over 100 random college students at a faith-based university, I discovered the sad truth that about three quarters of these young people felt that a stigma exists against mental health issues in their faith-based campus community. Furthermore, Ed Stetzer, in Christianity Today, agrees that “In many ways, the church, the supposed haven for sufferers, is not a safe place for those who struggle with mental illness.”

So, what are some ways we can begin making our churches safe places for those struggling with mental illnesses?

1. We need to accept our own mental health issues.

Before we can make the church a safe place for others with mental illnesses, I think we ourselves must first come to terms with our past trauma and current mental health issues. How can we expect to make other people feel supported and safe despite their mental illnesses if we ourselves are hiding from our own mental frailty? We would only be hurting ourselves by refusing to face our own problems and fooling others temporarily into believing we accept them. 

I think we need to stop pretending our lives are perfect and stuffing our pain and fears. We need to show others that we admit that we are fallible, broken people too and that we are willing to relate ourselves with others who openly accept their own mental illnesses. Making churches safe for those who struggle with mental illness begins with us church members accepting and learning about our own mental health first.

2. We need to research and be aware of what mental health issues particularly affect our church congregations’ demographics.

Each church has its own dynamics and its own demographics. Some churches are geared toward young people, while others cater toward elderly individuals. Some churches are more affluent, while others serve the underprivileged. Either way, particular mental health issues are more relevant depending on the age group, socio-economic status and other factors. Anxiety may be a more common mental illness among young people, but depression may be more common among the elderly. I think we have to know our church family better before we can spread awareness effectively in order to make our churches safer for those who struggle with mental illnesses.

3. We need to stop judging people’s religion and salvation by their mental illness status.

In my experience, churches are infamous for judgment and criticism, accusations which many times are not founded on reality. However, just because someone struggles with anxiety does not mean they do not trust her God or that they are not striving their best to grow closer to Him. 

Furthermore, just because someone is depressed does not mean that they are necessarily disconnected from their God. Many times, our mental health status goes far beyond our spiritual health or lack thereof. Chemical and hormonal imbalances might affect ones mental health, and abuse and trauma can cause seemingly irreparable damage to some people’s mental health, even if they are studying their Scriptures every day and trying their best to be good people. As a result, I think we need to stop making other people’s mental health our gauge of their spiritual experience.

4. When someone confides in us, we need to keep their mental health struggles confidential, even from other church members.

If someone confides in us about their mental health struggles, I think we need to treat that information as a precious sign of that individual’s trust and confidence in us. Spreading rumors about mental illness is just as hurtful if not more than spreading stories of someone’s secret sins, partially because of the stigma attached to mental illness by many people. Mental health is a personal matter and should be kept that way.

If someone shares their mental illness story with you, don’t tell it to your best friend at church, to the head deaconess, or anyone else, for that matter. Unless it is a matter of life or death, other people’s mental health and what they do about it is their business, not the whole church community’s, so don’t start spreading rumors. Keep other people’s mental health confidential.

5. We need to talk more freely about mental health within our churches.

Mental health should not be a taboo within our churches. It is an aspect of our existence as important and real as our physical well-being. It’s time we faced mental health issues head on, instead of whispering about them in the shadowy corners of the church sanctuary. 

Mental health fairs, depression seminars and even mental health support groups are all programs that churches could implement to spark a more open conversation about mental health within our churches. 

We church-goers need to learn more about keeping our minds healthy just as much as anyone else does, and we need the support of our church family when the struggle with mental illness feels like too much for us. We need to stop pretending and start spreading awareness of mental health issues in our churches.

Thankfully, many churches have already begun to implement these five steps and other valuable ideas, in order to improve their approach to mental health and the very real issues that result from poor mental health. If your church is one of these, keep up the good work! If not, these are some simple ways you can begin making your church a safer place for people who struggle with mental health issues. Change begins with you!

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Getty image via ta_samaya