As we cross the threshold into another year of a global pandemic, the stress is palpable. We all want to be resilient, but resilience is becoming more difficult. For church leaders, the call to action is clear: Congregations must not underestimate what they can do to have a positive impact on mental and emotional well-being.

One in five adult Americans experienced mental illness in 2020. One in six youth from ages 6-17 experiences a mental health disorder each year. The prevalence of mental illness should make it easier for us to talk about our concerns and challenges, but that’s not always the case. The National Alliance on Mental Illness reports that suicide is the second leading cause of death among people ages 10-34.

What can churches do?

First, we can talk about mental illness from the pulpit with compassion instead of judgment. If we expect congregants to speak openly about their experiences, they must hear in sermons and pastoral remarks that it is safe to be vulnerable with their mental health concerns.

Second, if someone takes his or her own life, we must really listen to what the victim’s family needs rather than pretend the problem will go away on its own or offer them advice we think they need. In the aftermath of a suicide, we often speak about the tragedy in hushed voices, as if the mere mention of the word “suicide” is shameful. Churches should publicize congregational and community mental health resources on an ongoing basis so that members know where to get help before the crisis happens.

Third, do not over-spiritualize mental illness. In some Christian traditions, we have a way of talking about mental health that puts the blame on the person for their illness. We tell them they just need more faith, or they need to pray more.We all probably need more faith and more prayer, but just as we go to the dentist for a toothache, God has provided the gifts of qualified, caring mental health professionals to tend to our psychological well-being. We know that more faith will not unblock our arteries, so why do we assume that’s the remedy for mental illness? Spending time with a capable, compassionate mental health professional can be the first step toward healing and wholeness.

If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

Resources


Before you go…

As John Swinton points out in his interview with Faith & Leadership, a big problem for many people is loneliness, which goes deeper than physical isolation. According to Vivek H. Murthy, 19th U.S. Surgeon General, loneliness is what we feel when we lack the social connections we need. God calls the church to care for all parts of the body of Christ, and one way we can do this is by keeping people connected. This is hard work right now, but it is work that is both desperately needed and well worth the effort. We all should challenge ourselves to make safe, social connection a priority. Our people need to know they are not alone.

Until next week, you can always reach me and the Alban Weekly team at alban@duke.edu. Peace and blessings!

Prince Rivers

Editor, Alban at Duke Divinity

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