This Tuesday, October 10, 2023 is World Mental Health Day.
Originally founded in October 1992 by the World Federation for Mental Health (WFMH), this important annual event was created to further the WFMH’s mission to “advance the prevention of mental and emotional disorders, provide proper treatment and care to those in need, and promote mental well-being among individuals and nations.”
This year’s theme is “Mental Health is a Universal Human Right.”
A Nation in Crisis: Over 1 in 4 Americans Struggling with Mental Health Concerns
While the latest data provided by the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) together with the Census Bureau does point to a drop in current rates of depression and anxiety nationwide, unfortunately, an alarmingly significant minority of the nation’s population still struggles with mental health issues on a regular basis.
As of September 2023, one in five Americans (19%) report symptoms of depression, while one in four Americans (24.2%) report symptoms of anxiety.
Combined, over a quarter of all Americans (28.8%) report currently dealing with symptoms of depression and/or anxiety.
These numbers aren’t merely alarming to those suffering from mental health concerns. According to a recent KFF/CNN survey: “An overwhelming majority of the public (90%) think there is a mental health crisis in the U.S. today.”
This leads us to two questions:
- What is the church doing about the current mental health crisis?
- What should the church be doing about the current mental health crisis?
Church Pastors Aren’t Equipped to Deal with Mental Health Challenges
According to UK-based charity Kintsugi Hope, only 35% of survey respondents reported feeling supported by their church in regards to their mental health. This may be, in large part, due to a lack of training.
The same report found that an incredible “91% of church leaders received no training about mental health during their theological training.”
This is unfortunate, considering that a recent Lifeway study found that 54% of pastors have served on church staff where “they have known at least one church member who has been diagnosed with a severe mental illness such as clinical depression, bipolar or schizophrenia.”
This number doesn’t include the pastors who are unsure or whose congregations simply never mentioned anything.
Furthermore, the same study found that 26% “of U.S. Protestant pastors say they have personally struggled with some type of mental illness, including 17% who say it was diagnosed and 9% who say they experienced it but were never diagnosed.”
The statistics are clear: Our nation is currently in the midst of a mental health crisis, and our pastors are simply not equipped to deal with it.
For Many, the Church Stigma Around Mental Health Still Lingers
While one could easily argue that pastors shouldn’t be expected to be trained and licensed mental health professionals on top of all of the other responsibilities they juggle on a day-to-day basis for very little pay (and I would tend to agree!), the fact of the matter is that many Christians are paying attention to what the church is saying (and not saying) about mental health.
According to Lifeway, “26% of U.S. Protestant pastors say they rarely bring up mental illness to their church and 11% saying they never talk about it.” The reasons are unclear. Perhaps pastors don’t know what to say, aren’t sure how to say it, or don’t see the importance of discussing mental health publicly within a church-wide setting.
Either way, as a result, the pervasive stigma around mental health topics continues to linger within the church.
Whether intentionally or unintentionally, churchgoers are often met with (incorrect!) messaging such as:
- Real Christians don’t suffer from mental health challenges
- Mental health challenges are really just spiritual oppression in disguise
- Mental health challenges are usually the result of unrepentant sin
- If you have mental health concerns, it’s because you don’t trust God enough
- If you have mental health concerns, it’s because you’re not trying hard enough
- If you just pray about your mental illness, God will take it away
- If you just pray about your mental illness, God is disappointed in you
Unfortunately, this theologically incorrect messaging can lead to many people suffering in silent shame, convinced that their struggles are their own fault because they didn’t “try hard enough” or “trust God enough.”
Messages like these are often passed on unintentionally by well-meaning Christians whose hearts are in the right place, but these good intentions often aren’t enough to counteract the damage being done.
Yet, Church Attendance is Positively Correlated with Improved Mental Health
Thankfully, despite many of the concerning statistics shared above, there is hope.
According to a January 2023 Gallup survey, “67% of those who attend weekly are very satisfied with their personal life, compared with 48% among those who are infrequent attenders.”
This isn’t the first research study to report a positive link between church attendance and well-being either.
According to TIME,
“Scientists have found, again and again, that those with a spiritual practice or who follow religious beliefs tend to be happier than those who don’t. Study after study has found that religious people tend to be less depressed and less anxious than nonbelievers, better able to handle the vicissitudes of life than nonbelievers.”
Current research isn’t clear whether church attendance causes an improvement in mental health. There could be a third factor at play, or it could be that those who aren’t struggling from mental health challenges find it easier to make it to church on a regular basis.
Either way, however, the research is clear that the two are linked.
How the Church Can Help Those Struggling with Mental Illness
In light of this research, we must recognize the fact that, whether or not pastors are adequately trained to handle mental health concerns, their congregations are looking to them to provide theological insights, advice, and help on this topic.
And it isn’t just pastors. We have a responsibility as Christians to make sure that our churches are places of love, acceptance, and support for those facing mental health concerns.
Here are a few ways all of us, as Christians, can help with this:
1. Avoid Perpetuating Hurtful Stereotypes
While it may seem loving to pass on platitudes such as “God will never give you more than you can handle,” “You just have to trust God to provide!” or “Just pray about it!” understand that phrases like these can do more harm than good for those struggling with mental health concerns.
Better alternatives include:
- I’m so sorry you’re dealing with that! That must be so difficult!
- Thank you so much for sharing this with me. I’ll be praying for you.
- Tell me more. I’d love to better understand what you’re going through.
- You are so brave for sharing that with me! I appreciate your vulnerability.
- Is there anything I can do to help, or would you just like me to listen?
- Can I look up some great books or resources that you might find helpful?
- I love you. I’m here anytime if you ever need to talk – day or night.
While the advice to “just pray about it!” may not be enough to treat persistent mental health concerns, that doesn’t mean that we should discount the power of prayer altogether.
Whether you pray directly with the person facing mental health challenges or you pray on your own later, you may consider praying:
- That God would be very near to them in their struggles
- That God would give them the strength they need to keep going
- That God would show them the truth of who He is and who they are in Him
- That God would surround them with people to love, support, and encourage them
- That God would protect them from the negative effects of spiritual warfare
- That God would replace their worrying with His peace
For many struggling with mental health concerns, the most helpful action you can take is simply listening without judgment. Sometimes, people simply want to know that they aren’t alone, they aren’t crazy, and that everything is going to be okay, even if it doesn’t feel okay now.
Some of what they share may be hard to hear, but resist the urge to get angry or defensive, particularly if they accuse you or someone you love of negative behaviors you don’t feel you’ve committed.
If someone trusts you enough to vulnerably share their thoughts, feelings, hurts, and fears with you, take a moment to honor that rather than immediately rushing in to tell them that they’re wrong or that they need to take a specific action.
4. Help Them Find the Resources They Need
Unfortunately, depending on the severity of the mental health concerns the person is facing, you may not be equipped to effectively help them on your own. In instances like these, do not hesitate to help them find the resources they need, if they are open to this type of help (or if you have concerns for their safety).
You might recommend a counselor you trust, a book you’ve heard comes highly recommended, or an app you believe could be very helpful for their unique concerns. For example, a recent study conducted by Skylight found that those who used their app’s spiritual exercises reported reduced rates of anxiety, stress, and sleep problems.
Those struggling with more severe cases of anxiety or depression may not have the energy, capacity, or drive to locate resources like these on their own, or they may resist seeking the help they need due to some of the common mental health myths discussed above.