Most pastors have seen mental illness in their pews, while some have seen it in themselves. A Lifeway Research study explores U.S. Protestant pastors’ experiences with mental illness and how well their churches are equipped to respond to those who need help.
A majority of pastors (54%) say in the churches where they have served on staff, they have known at least one church member who has been diagnosed with a severe mental illness such as clinical depression, bipolar or schizophrenia. Most of those pastors had experience with a small number of members: 18% say 1-2 and another 18% say 3-5. Fewer pastors say they’ve known 6-10 (8%), 11-20 (5%) or more than 20 (6%). Around a third (34%) say none of their church members have been diagnosed with a severe mental illness, while 12% don’t know.
“There is a healthy generational shift occurring as younger and middle-aged pastors are much more likely to have encountered people in church with severe mental health issues than the oldest pastors,” said Scott McConnell, executive director of Lifeway Research. “However, it is not clear whether the presence of those with difficult mental illnesses is increasing among church members or if they have simply felt more comfortable sharing their diagnosis with younger pastors.”
Pastors 65 and older (46%) and those with no college degree (52%) are more likely to say they haven’t known any church members with a severe mental illness.
Twenty-six percent of U.S. Protestant pastors say they have personally struggled with some type of mental illness, including 17% who say it was diagnosed and 9% who say they experienced it but were never diagnosed. Three-quarters (74%) say they’ve never dealt with a mental illness.
Compared to a 2014 Lifeway Research study, a similar number of pastors today say they have endured mental illness themselves (26% v. 23%). More pastors now, however, say they have been diagnosed (17% v. 12%).
“During the COVID-19 pandemic many Americans have faced challenges to their mental health,” said McConnell. “More pastors today are seeking professional help as evidenced by more having been diagnosed with mental illness. Younger pastors are the most likely to say they have endured mental illness.”
Pastors under 45 (37%) are most likely to say they have struggled with some form of mental illness.
Churchgoers may not hear about mental illness frequently from the pulpit, but most churches will hear about the subject at least once a year from their pastor.
Six in 10 U.S. Protestant pastors say they speak to their churches about acute or chronic mental illness in sermons or large group messages at least once a year, including 17% who bring up the subject about once a year. For more than 2 in 5 pastors, the issue comes up multiple times a year, with 30% saying they talk about it several times a year, 9% saying about once a month and 4% saying several times a month.
Other pastors cover the topic much less frequently, with 26% saying they rarely bring it up and 11% saying they never talk about it. Another 3% aren’t sure.
Pastors are more likely to broach the subject in a large group setting today than 2014, when 49% said they rarely or never spoke about it. Eight years ago, 33% mentioned the issue several times a year or more compared to 43% today.