Mental Health & The Church

Last night, we had our family portrait taken for our church’s directory. As we sat on the stools in our color-coordinated attire, surrounded by photos of other families in their sweaters and suit coats, I realized how deceiving this directory might be. I think it can be all too easy to hide real-life issues behind things like smiles and glamour shots, our talents and knowing the words to worship songs. I am grateful for my pastors, who are not afraid to talk about abuse, anxiety, sex trafficking, and other real-life issues from the pulpit, but I know there is room for more of these conversations in every congregation. We can spend so much time pouring energy into looking the way a church directory family should look that we miss out on checking our hearts and keeping them oriented toward Him. I’m not suggesting that we scrap church directories (they are very helpful for learning about the congregation, learning names of new folks, and finding out where to deliver casseroles). But I do feel like there should be a disclaimer– “Every single family pictured in this directory is imperfect. They might yell at each other, drive aggressively, deal with an illness you can’t see, or have a struggle you don’t know about. Each person pictured needs the same amount of Jesus and His grace.”

And then I was reminded that I’m not alone in that desire for authenticity.

Earlier this month, North Park Church graciously invited me to serve as the keynote speaker for their 2015 Women’s Retreat. I treasured spending part of the day with the scores of women who are eager to experience trust, transparency, and truth. The topic they had planned was “Staying Safe in the Storms of Life,” and I love how beautifully they started some mental health conversations, especially in their small groups. I’d like to highlight a few things that I think we can all take away from their retreat:

  1. You are not alone. The first part of my presentation was focused on deciphering myth from truth. Take a look at these NAMI statistics. With one in four American adults experiencing mental illness each year, it would be ludicrous to expect that our churches would be immune to things like depression, abuse, anxiety, schizophrenia, and addiction. I think it is easy to fall into a hole where we believe that we can (and should) have it all together. This is especially dangerous in our churches because we need to be humble enough to serve those around us and humble enough to ask for help. Everybody’s got something– normal is just a setting on your dryer.
  2. There is great need for mental health conversations in our churches. At the NPC Retreat, I spent some time highlighting anxiety, depression, and grief. Remember how 1 in 4 Americans experience mental illness each year? Now take a look at this recent data collected by LifeWay Research (you can download the full research by clicking here). Of the 1,000 pastors included in this research, almost two-thirds of them report that they rarely or never speak to their congregation about mental illness, even though 23% of the pastors reported personal struggles with mental illness. With odds like those, it’s important that churches recruit qualified individuals to start conversations, field tough questions, and help congregants find the additional help they need. My hope is that spiritual leaders and mental health leaders will join forces to serve congregations with love and quality. Together, we can #endthestigma
  3. There is hope. Luckily, in the moments when we are too tattered and beaten to cook or meet or pray, there are people who can help. Talk to someone in your community who can help you find someone to pray with you, cook for you, or take the kids so you can have a break. There are things you can do to take care of yourself during life’s storms and to love others in the middle of their storms. If you need some ideas, talk to your counselor, ask your church leaders, check out these resources, or contact me. Ultimately, He is our anchor in the midst of these storms, and we love because He loved us first. [Hebrews 6:19 “We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure…”]

So what’s next? I hope to see similar conversations pop up in churches all over our area: women’s retreats, men’s retreats, youth retreats, Sunday schools, sermons, seminars. My goal is that we start these conversations and that they never end. May our churches be so filled with love and grace that people do not feel shunned or marginalized for not being “normal” enough. Perhaps we will create mental health prayer walls and ministries to meet the emotional needs of our congregations. Ultimately, I hope people will receive the quality mental health care they need and deserve without fear of stigma or rejection, especially in their churches.

If you would like to meet with me and discuss how I could bring similar discussions to your church, you can start now by contacting me here.

Published by Jessica Gage, MA, LPC, NCC

I am a Licensed Professional Counselor in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania (license #PC007550) and a National Certified Counselor.

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