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

Second, the person struggling with a mental health problem needs a holistic approach to “treatment” that takes into account all aspects of his or her being: physical, mental, emotional, spiritual and relational. Treatments and interventions that focus solely on a single aspect of a person’s being can bring limited relief at best. A holistic mental health approach, however, is comprehensive, addressing the whole individual: physical needs (e.g., sleeping well, medication, relaxation, nutrition, and exercise), mental needs (e.g., healthy thinking, coping with problems/stress, mindfulness, cycles and triggers, and mental activities), emotional needs (e.g., love, encouragement, joy, and peace), spiritual needs (e.g., hope, knowing your identity, finding purpose, spiritual growth, and living in community), and relational needs (e.g., family and friends, resolving conflict, overcoming stigma, opportunities to serve, and forgiveness). The Church’s holistic view of man offers those struggling with a mental health problem a more complete framework for recovery and transformation.

Third, accessibility is, perhaps, the biggest problem with our present mental healthcare system… but imagine what could happen if churches were equipped to effectively serve in the gatekeeper role that the system expects of them. This would mean individuals in psychological distress who seek out assistance from the Church would be quickly identified and appropriately referred for professional care. In rethinking mental healthcare, what if churches were equipped not only to be effective gatekeepers, but also places where peer-led mental health services were available onsite? These services would not replace professional mental healthcare but, instead, serve as an adjunct to those resources. Basic helping, such as crisis intervention, psychoeducation, mental health coaching and support groups, are ideal for implementation in a church setting. Services such as these, led by non-professionals, have been shown to be effective in managing symptoms and maintaining stability, as well as the added benefits of minimal cost and maximum accessibility.

Finally, a supportive community is a necessary factor in successful mental health recovery. Churches can offer individuals and their families an accepting and supportive environment where they can pursue healing and wholeness. The call of the Church is to “bear one another’s burdens” and “love one another.” This makes available to the afflicted and their families a community of care and respite from the struggles associated with mental health problems. Every church is different; each has a specific set of needs and available resources. For the Church to transform the mental healthcare system, it is not necessary for every congregation to be involved at the same level, but only for each congregation to become involved.

How Churches Can Help People Struggling With Mental Health Problems

The first step toward developing an environment within our congregations that promotes hope and healing in those living with mental illness is to break the silence. Here are some simple steps for a congregation to begin:

  • As a faith community, pray in a general way each week for anyone who is struggling with a mental or emotional disorder.
  • Invite congregants living with mental illness or caring for a mentally ill loved one to write down their particular spiritual and emotional needs. Read these during the weekly prayers (ensuring any needed confidentiality).
  • Prepare sermons that acknowledge the realities experienced by those with mental illness.
  • Invite a member of the church who has struggled with mental illness to share his or her story with the congregation.
  • Place brochures and other sources of information regarding mental illness and available resources in the back of the church or in the pews.
  • Invite a mental health professional to speak or offer a seminar to teach that mental illnesses are brain-based disorders.

A number of organizations (e.g., National Alliance for the Mentally Ill and the American Association of Christian Counselors) offer mental health training that clergy and their ministry staff can easily access. If a congregation is interested in going further, a greater level of commitment might include:

  • Support Groups. Allow organizations that offer mental health support groups (e.g., National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, Depression/Bipolar Support Alliance, and Alcoholics/Narcotics Anonymous) to use the church’s facility to hold regular weekly meetings. If the faith community is interested in being more directly involved in the delivery of support groups, partner with faith-based organizations such as Mental Health Grace Alliance (mentalhealthgracealliance.org), Celebrate Recovery (celebraterecovery.com), or the American Association of Christian Counselors (aacc.net) to have congregants trained to lead groups.
  • Mental Health Coaches. Faith communities may have a group of congregants trained as mental health coaches. Mental health coaches help individuals find ways to obtain and maintain stability, access resources and services, manage difficult symptoms, rebuild relationships, and find purpose for living. Mental health coaches also help those with whom they work connect with local, professional mental health resources. These individuals would serve in a voluntary capacity, much like a pastoral care team, available to receive referrals for mental health issues from the pastoral staff.  

The Church Plays an Important Role in Mental Health Support

The ultimate goal is to implement a system of holistic recovery and supportive services in churches using non-professionals working in collaboration with professional mental healthcare providers. 

The fact that individuals living with mental illness are seeking assistance and counsel from the Church should prompt us to rise up and be the hands and feet of Christ to suffering people. A biblical response to mental illness relieves physical and psychological suffering while revealing the unconditional love and limitless grace that is available through a personal relationship with Christ. This is done through the application of both biblical truth and mental health resources. God is leading His hurting children to us. It is time the Church stops abdicating its role in mental health and starts leading.


This article originally appeared in Christian Counseling Today, Vol. 21 No. 2. Christian Counseling Today is the flagship publication of the American Association of Christian Counselors. To learn more about the AACC, click here.


1 Any Mental Illness (AMI) Among Adults. (n.d.). Retrieved July 13, 2015, from http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/prevalence/any-mental-illness-ami-among-adults.shtml.

2 Any Disorder Among Children. (n.d.) Retrieved July 13, 2015, from http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/prevalence/any-disorder-among-children.shtml.

3 Use of Mental Health Services and Treatment among Children. (n.d.). Retrieved July 13, 2015, from http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/prevalence/use-of-mental-health-services-and-treatment-among-children.shtml; Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Results from the 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Mental Health Findings, NSDUH Series H-47, HHS Publication No. (SMA) 13-4805. Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2013). Retrieved July 13, 2015, from  http://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/2k12MH_Findings.

4 Stanford, M.S., & Philpott, D. (2011). Baptist senior pastors’ knowledge and perceptions of mental illness. Mental Health, Religion and Culture, 14, 281-290.