How Not to Bolster Mental Illness Stigma From the Pulpit

mental illness stigma

In the wake of the Parkland school shooting that left 17 dead, many are talking about mental illness and the connection, if there is one, to mass murders. In light of these conversations, pastors need to be careful not to reinforce the mental illness stigma present in our culture—especially from the pulpit.

Florida Governor Rick Scott vowed to keep guns out of the hands of those with mental illness. And Attorney General Jeff Sessions committed to “study the intersection of mental health and criminality and identify how we can stop people capable of such heinous crimes.”

Should church leaders be part of that discussion with their congregations?

Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, told ChurchLeaders that he doesn’t want to see pastors sending “unintended messages” resulting from political reactions to the violence, thus furthering the mental illness stigma.

“I’ve heard people saying…’this is mental illness, these are kids with mental illness.’ When you say that in that simple sort of way, what that can do is send a message to the people in the congregation, if you’ve got a mental illness then you’re a potential killer. Or if you have a child with a mental illness, you’re a potential threat, when that’s not the case.”

Moore would rather hear love, grace and the justice of God spoken of in the wake of the tragedy.

Those views are echoed by Brad Hambrick, Pastor of Counseling at The Summit Church in Durham, North Carolina.  

He said he’s seen a lot of discussion on social media about mental illness and personality disorders. He fears the topics are being conflated. “When you add to the discussion that the gunman was on psychotropic meds, it can stigmatize anyone on meds for depression or generalized anxiety as potentially dangerous.”

Still, he would encourage pastors to increase their discussion of mental illness in a more neutral context and on a more regular basis to help raise awareness about mental health issues. He offers as a resource How to Promote Excellent Counseling Resources to Your Church Members.

Resources for Avoiding Mental Illness Stigma

Hambrick’s recommendations include:

  • An intentional approach to social media.
  • Have a database of quality posts or memes to promote.
  • Update your database as you find good material. Ministry will force you to find resources.

He says the end goal is twofold: Help people who are hurting in your church become aware of quality resources that are available early in their struggle, and help everyone in your church learn of quality Christian resources that help them apply their faith to life.

Increased and appropriate discussion of mental illness is also recommended by Dr. Tim Clinton, president of the American Association of Christian Counselors.

“Today we grieve and stand with the parents, students and all those who were touched by the senseless act of violence in today’s school shooting in Florida. This tragedy, like so many before, highlights the glaring need for our country to better understand and destigmatize mental health issues.”

But he says for now a pastor’s efforts should be concentrated on “comforting the brokenhearted and those traumatized by the evil they encountered.”

While churches strive to help their members cope with evil in the world and its aftermath, they must also be careful not to alienate those who are struggling with mental health issues and desperately in need of spiritual care.

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Bob Ditmer
Bob Ditmer has worked in Christian media for more than 20 years including positions with Ravi Zacharias International Ministries and Focus on the Family.

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