Churches must break mental illness stigma, survey suggests

Almost one-quarter of the U.S. population will be diagnosed with mental illness at some point in their lives, and many will turn to religious leaders for help. But ill-prepared pastors and the stigma associated with mental disorders combine to frustrate a person’s efforts to find healing within the Christian community.

In a study jointly sponsored by LifeWay Research and Focus on the Family researchers discovered despite the high incidences of mental illness in the general population, pastors rarely preach on the issue and church support for those suffering is limited at best. The resulting lack of communication keeps sufferers silent in the pews and congregations unaware of the wounded among them and their desperate need for help from their fellow believers.

Breaking the silence means breaking the stigma.

“The most powerful thing we can do is remove the stigma. It is not a sin to be sick.”

“The most powerful thing we can do is remove the stigma. It is not a sin to be sick,” said Kay Warren, wife of Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church, who together suffered a very public loss in April 2013 when their adult son Matthew took his own life following a lifelong struggle with mental illness.

In a Sept. 22 nation-wide press conference to introduce the mental health research findings, Warren was joined by Ed Stetzer, LifeWay Research executive director, and Jared Pingleton, a clinical psychologist and director of the counseling department for Focus on the Family.

News of the study elicited cheers from Christians working to break the stereotypes associated with mental illness within the church.

“Finally! Finally the church is going to see this as a real issue and stop blaming the victims,” Tammy Zwarst, a licensed professional counselor and marriage and family therapist for the Galveston Baptist Association, told the TEXAN.

Zwarst, whose training includes board certification as a professional Christian counselor, has practiced for over 20 years and is still frustrated by the lack of understanding—and, sometimes, compassion—among Christians. She and Warren hold the pastorate accountable for the ethos in the church.

All too often, Zwarst said, pastors speak from a platform of ignorance regarding mental illness, equating mental health disorders with spiritual struggles.

And she cringes.

“Patients hear pastors say, ‘You need to get right with God. You don’t need medicines.’”

“Patients hear pastors say, ‘You need to get right with God. You don’t need medicines,’” Zwarst said.

Such rhetoric dissuades parishioners already racked with self-doubt and feelings of insufficient faith from sharing their struggles with their pastors or fellow church members.

“People with mental illness just want to be normal,” said Warren.

Who are the mentally ill, and how is the church recognizing and meeting their needs?

The LifeWay study involved three separate surveys: 1,000 pastors; 355 Americans diagnosed with an acute mental illness, which included 200 church-goers; and 207 family members of those diagnoses. All surveyed were affiliated with Protestant churches. Researchers conducted extensive interviews with 15 experts in the fields of spirituality and mental illness.

The study revealed although the church has made some strides in constructively addressing mental illness, there is still a long way to go.

  • 23 percent of pastors report experiencing some kind of mental illness.
  • 12 percent of pastors have received a diagnosis of a “mental health condition.”
  • 66 percent of pastors rarely speak from the pulpit about mental illness.
  • 16 percent of pastors reported they speak about it at least once a year.
  • 27 percent of pastors have a plan to assist families affected by mental illness.
  • 21 percent of respondents reported knowing about church assistance plans.
  • 68 percent of churches reported having a list of local mental health resources.
  • 59 percent of those diagnosed with mental illness want the church to talk about the issue.
  • 65 percent of family members of those diagnosed also want to discuss the subject openly in church.

The finely intertwined co-mingling of Christian faith and mental health confuses the relationship—and the distinction—between the two.

“They do get interwoven,” Zwarst said. “Sometimes there are people who are depressed who ought to be depressed. In that case conviction looks a lot like [clinical] depression.”

Suffering emotionally as a result of poor choices or circumstances beyond a person’s control is what Zwarst called Adjustment Disorder, but she would not define it as a mental illness. With counseling or even simply the support of faithful Christian family and friends, a person moves through and out of that “funk.”

But diagnosable depression lingers, and its debilitating influences vary, affecting a person’s ability to function on a daily basis. An individual may deal with a single bout of depression his entire life while others experience its ebb and flow for a lifetime.

Whereas depression often has environmental triggers that give life to the illness, bi-polar disorder is a bio-chemical disorder. It is not curable, but it is manageable. With medication and counseling, people diagnosed with the disorder can live well with the illness, Zwarst said.

And it is an illness.

“It’s the ‘No Casserole Illness,’” said Warren, borrowing the term from author Amy Simpson, who wrote in Troubled Minds about her experiences growing up with a mentally ill mother. Church members are quick to deliver meals to those struck by cancer but fail to recognize the same need in those dealing with a different disease.

Steven Smith, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary vice president for student services and communications, said pastors can—and should—do a better job when counseling church members and encouraging an environment of compassion in their churches.

SWBTS does not require counseling courses for a Master of Divinity, the degree sought by most would-be preachers, but biblical counseling courses are available for elective credit.

Warren said the most effective ministry pastors could provide the mentally ill in their congregations is a word of encouragement from the pulpit. Just a sermon or a prayer informs those suffering in silence someone cares, giving them the courage to speak up. And it can convict their fellow church members of the need for compassion.

The church historically has been a place where the broken—in mind, body, and spirit—could find healing or strength to live with what cannot be healed in this life.

“Every single church can have an attitude of caring,” Warren said. “We can champion a holistic approach to health … so that we’re not just dealing with our souls but our bodies and our minds.”

Read other stories from the Oct. 8 edition of TEXAN Digital Magazine.

TEXAN Correspondent
Bonnie Pritchett
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