Shedding Light on Mental Illness in the Church

Shedding Light on Mental Illness in the Church

The stigma of serious mental illness is reaching the end of a long tunnel, so to speak, and emerging into the light of open discussion. Just decades ago, the terms ‘bipolar disorder’ and ‘clinical depression’ were hardly talked about outside of family conversations and psychiatrists’ offices. Now, with the help of celebrities who have come forward with their own struggles, we are having open and candid discussions about mental illness—diseases as real and debilitating as heart disease or cancer.

Recent statistics report that nearly 20 percent of American adults experienced some form of mental illness within the last year, with 5 percent suffering from serious mental illness. According to new research, individuals with mental health problems often turn to the church first for help. In response to this need, many churches are looking for ways to become better equipped in these situations.

A new study, conducted by LifeWay Research, has taken steps to shed light on where the Protestant church currently stands in terms of mental illness. Researchers interviewed 1,000 Protestant church leaders; 355 believers with serious mental illness (depression, bipolar or schizophrenia), 200 of whom were church attendees; 207 Protestant family members of people with mental illness; and had in-depth interviews with 15 experts on spirituality and mental health.

According to the findings, the strongest request among mentally ill individuals and their families was that churches be prepared to connect people with local mental health resources. They also ask that churches create an atmosphere of open discussion about mental illness and that they promote mental health awareness and education in the church.

Most individuals with serious mental illness and their family members report the local church as being supportive. However, 18% reported breaking ties with the church because of the response they received from church members; 10% changed churches based on church response; and 5% failed to find a church at all because of church response.

Some other key highlights of the study include the following:

  • More than 1 in 5 pastors have personally struggled with mental illness.
  • Most pastors indicate they personally know one or more people who have been diagnosed with clinical depression (74%), bipolar disorder (76%), and schizophrenia (45%).
  • 59% of pastors have counseled one or more individuals who were eventually diagnosed with a serious mental disorder.
  • The most popular opinion of pastors and family members is that spiritual principles be shared first, followed by psychological therapy.
  • Among individuals with serious mental illness, the most popular opinion is to receive psychological therapy without the sharing of spiritual principles.
  • Pastors are most likely to change their view on mental illness once they are personally impacted by it.
  • 70% of individuals with serious mental illness would prefer to have a friendship with a person in a local church.

The church has an opportunity to be a sanctuary of healing and love for people who are suffering with mental illness. When the stigma is gone, the church leaders and the members are educated, and the resources are available, the long journey of mental illness won’t feel nearly as lonely.

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