The Church and Mental Illness

According to a Baylor study, more people with a mental illness seek help from clergy than from mental health professionals.  This concerns me for two reasons.  First, clergy learn very little about mental illness when they go to seminary.  Second, like the general public, churches don’t generally talk about mental illness and aren’t really supportive.  Even in the church which I attend and am an elder, there is a great deal of silence and awkwardness even though it is a very caring church.

Still the church has been making strides to be more supportive.  Eighteen months ago, I facilitated a training with the elders on how to be supportive of people who have a mental illness.  The church also sent a resolution to our Regional Assembly charging church leaders to be more informed about mental illness so they can be supportive of people who have one and their families.

In June, I became very depressed and had suicidal thoughts.  I shared this with the other elders and two told me that they had been very depressed and considered suicide.  I appreciated their support and planned to ask the church for prayers for my depression on Sunday morning, but I didn’t do it.  I was surprised I was afraid.  I didn’t ask for prayers the next week either.  I realized that if I (someone who is open about having a mental health disorder and in a supportive church) can’t ask for prayers then probably most people find it impossible.  On the third Sunday, I forced myself to request prayers.  After worship, no one said anything to me; no one even said they hoped I’d feel better.  I knew this wasn’t because they were uncaring but because they didn’t know what to say or do.

This gave me an idea.  I talked to the other elders and the minister, and we decided to have a Mental Health Sunday following Mental Health Awareness Week.  I was asked to preach and to plan the order of the worship service.  I asked people at church who I knew had had an experience with mental illness to share their story after worship.  Most of them had experienced depression, a majority had contemplated suicide, one had had ECT, and a couple of them were related to someone with a mental illness.   They all agreed.

On October 12th, the church had Mental Health Sunday, the theme of the worship service was mental illness, and I preached and shared my story.  Afterwards, we ate taco salad and six elders and one deacon shared how a mental health challenge had affected them.  One elder is a family doctor so he talked about what mental illness is.  I was surprised by how much people were willing to share.  Afterwards, several people told me that they had learned a lot and were very grateful for the day.  I hope that hearing the experiences of church leaders will help people get the treatment and support they need.

As a retired ordained minister and someone with Bipolar Disorder, my goal is to help churches learn about mental illness so people will receive the support they need.  The Interfaith Network on Mental Illness has resources for faith leaders, staff and members at  The UCC Mental Health Network has Mental Health Sunday resources at  And you can watch the webinar How Churches Can Promote Recovery that I did for the International Bipolar Foundation at  

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