Home Outreach Leaders Rethinking Mental Health Care: How the Church Can Transform a Broken System

Rethinking Mental Health Care: How the Church Can Transform a Broken System

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Since its very beginning, the Church has been involved in social justice movements to serve and comfort the “least of these.” It has always stepped up to be the hands and feet of Jesus here on earth, whether the problem was orphans, widows, slavery, poverty or disease. Many of these causes were popularized within the Church through broad movements. Often these movements began out of necessity because a particular need was so great. Hundreds of millions of people have been served through these church movements and, even more importantly, hundreds of millions around the world have heard the Gospel. Presently, active social justice movements within the Church include HIV/AIDS, homelessness, human trafficking, access to clean water, and hunger. All of these are important and significant issues, but I have often wondered why there has never been a movement focusing on mental illness.

The statistics are truly overwhelming. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that worldwide, 450 million individuals are struggling with a mental health problem. In the United States, nearly one out of every five adults (18.6%) struggles with a mental disorder in a given year. The annual prevalence of mental illness in adolescents 13-18 years old is even greater, at 21.4%. More disturbing is the fact that 60% of adults and 50% of children/adolescents diagnosed with a mental disorder receive no treatment at all. This last statistic is perhaps the most significant evidence of our broken mental healthcare system.

For those wrestling with a mental health disorder, even in one of the world’s richest and most developed countries, obtaining proper care can be hindered by a wide range of barriers that are difficult and, oftentimes, impossible to overcome. Too few mental healthcare professionals, a shortage of psychiatric facilities, no transportation, limited financial resources, a lack of knowledge and education, stigma and shame, and misguided cultural beliefs all serve as significant barriers to individuals trying to access critical services. This inability to obtain proper care frequently leaves the afflicted and their families confused, frustrated, and hopeless.

People With Mental Health Issues Often Go to Church First for Help

The problems associated with accessing mental healthcare is one of the reasons individuals in psychological distress are more likely to seek out a member of the clergy before any other professional group. Clergy members are more readily available and do not charge for their services. Psychologists have long viewed clergy as “mental health gatekeepers,” meaning… pastors serve as our first responders and the front door to the mental healthcare system. 

Viewed through the eyes of faith, it is obvious that this is not an accident, but a heavenly orchestrated, divine opportunity for the Church. Unfortunately, few pastors have the necessary training and expertise to recognize a mental health problem in a congregant, and even fewer have relationships with mental healthcare providers within their communities to which they are willing to make a referral. Thus, when presented with a mentally ill congregant, pastors provide temporary comfort and spiritual guidance, but fail to recognize the more significant and complex underlying mental health issues. As a result, treatment is often delayed, perpetuating suffering and shame both for the individual and his or her family. 

Because of the power of Christ within His people, our churches can be sanctuaries for the suffering. 1 Peter 3:8 says, “Finally, all of you, be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble.” God is sending those broken by mental illness to us so they might receive hope and healing. Mental health is the great mission field of the 21st century, and it is time the Church recognized its God-given role. The involvement of the Church in mental health is the missing piece necessary to transform our broken system, making it accessible and even more effective.

4 Reasons the Church Can Assist Those Struggling With Mental Health

Faith communities offer the mental healthcare system four elements it presently lacks: 1) a hope that transcends circumstances; 2) a holistic perspective; 3) accessibility; and 4) the support of a caring community.

Hope is the fuel that drives the engine of mental health recovery. As long as one has hope, there is motivation and opportunity for change. Hopeless people too often just give up. Historically, severe mental illness has been conceptualized as a chronic medical condition in which stability is the best possible outcome for treatment. The hope offered by the mental healthcare system is symptom reduction and illness management. The Church, however, understands that hope is more than a feeling; hope is a person, Jesus Christ. Hope in Christ transcends circumstances and sustains us when the world around us sees the situation as hopeless.

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mstanford@outreach.com'
Matthew S. Stanford, Ph.D., is CEO of The Hope and Healing Center & Institute (HHCI) in Houston, Texas, and adjunct professor in the Menninger Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Baylor College of Medicine and the Department of Psychology at the University of Houston. His research on the interplay between psychology and issues of faith has been featured by the New York Times, USA Today, Fox, MSNBC, Yahoo, and U.S. News & World Report. Dr. Stanford is a fellow of the Association for Psychological Science. As director of HHCI, he writes, conducts training seminars, and serves individuals living with mental illness and their families. He is the author of two books, Grace for the Afflicted: A Clinical and Biblical Perspective on Mental Illness and The Biology of Sin: Grace, Hope and Healing for Those Who Feel Trapped.