It happens to be Mental Illness Awareness Week, which comes days after I was able to take part in a workshop related to the topic sponsored by The Duke Endowment. “Caring for Your Congregation – Mental Health Resources for Clergy” was an intentional day for a very specific audience – clergy, faith leaders, and ordained community leaders. We learned how to recognize signs and symptoms of mental illness, how to properly offer a referral, and also learned about resources and techniques that better serve people.
Clergy tend to be a “first-responder” in the sense that ministers are often one of the first contacts during an individual’s mental health crisis. However, that does not mean that faith leaders are always prepared for the myriad mental and behavioral health issues that arise; this workshop was desperately needed. I hope that it sparks a larger conversation within our various faith communities, the needed conversation about mental health.
My hope for churches is that we find ways to openly dialogue about mental health and become a safe space about an issue that impacts one in four adults in our country, according to National Institute of Mental Health. While I realize that thousands of North Carolinians have already been working productively on mental health concerns for decades, I am not sure that the majority of local churches have been able to keep up. There are numerous faith communities and leaders that have been addressing this issue on a local and systemic level. However, as I travel and work with churches, I find that there is still a daunting blanket of stigma. So, we must talk. And we must listen. From there, we can then begin the arduous work of advocating and being a sustainable resource for those seeking help.
Here are a few ideas to help start the conversation on mental health in your faith community:
- Collaborate with a church in your area that is already advocating for mental health issues. Many churches have already figured out a way to address these issues in their community. Perhaps attend one of their events or reach out to their organizer; seeing a practical and genuine model of this conversation lived out will also serve as an encouragement for your church.
- Attend a local National Alliance on Mental Illness meeting: NAMI has neighborhood meetings in towns all over North Carolina, and they often meet in church buildings. This a wonderful opportunity to learn more and to meet others in your community who are concerned about mental illness. Maybe your church can become a meeting site for NAMI!
- Become Mental Health First Aid certified. This is a full-day course by the National Council for Behavioral Health that offers you tangible and practical resources for helping those in your community. These classes also happen throughout our state, and you can then share all that you learn with your church.
- Start a prayer group for those battling their mental illness and for those who feel hopeless, empty, and defeated by their diagnosis.
- Host a book club on mental health for those interested. There are many books that address mental illness, from an autobiographical narrative or even a book about the brain and its many processes.
- Approach your minister and worship team about the possibility of a Sunday worship service devoted to awareness of mental illness as well as destigmatizing it. There are many places in scripture for a preacher to speak on mental illness as well creative opportunities to invoke awareness and healing through liturgy, poems, and prayers. There is an abundance of helpful resources on worship and sermon guides but a personal favorite of mine is provided by the United Church of Christ.
Churches have an amazing opportunity to authentically offer community to those in need. Mental health is a huge component of that and I give thanks that our culture and conversations are finally allowing it to be addressed. I hope that we can all join this conversation in order to help bring peace to those in need. Partners in Health and Wholeness is concerned for the well-being of all our neighbors, emotional and mental health included.