Every week there are people sitting in our congregations who are experiencing social isolation because of mental health challenges. Many of these people will never tell anyone. For those who are suffering in silence, what is the answer? And is the Church prepared to care well for those who are open about their experiences?
In these questions, we see the desperate need for the Church to engage in the mental health conversation in a new way that can bring about community-wide transformation and understanding and make the Church a safe place, or perhaps the safest place, to experience a mental health challenge.
And yet, sadly for various reasons, including fear, stigma, and a basic lack of understanding, there are many churches that implicitly deny that mental health is a subject worthy of attention. A friend of mine, an occupational therapist, was once chatting to the leader of a well- known mega church based in a large North American city. She was talking about the need for churches to raise awareness around mental health support and to ensure that people have access to appropriate care when they need it. As she said this, the leader looked at her bemusedly and exclaimed, “but that would be pointless in our church because we don’t have any mental health problems!” This man believed that no one, in his church of 3000, suffered with mental health problems. Clearly the problem is even larger than we thought.
In the wider culture, there is a rapidly increasing awareness of the need for mental health care and supports, indicating that there is perhaps not a more pressing social issue for the Church to grapple with in our time.
When we open our history books and notice the role the Church has played, especially pre-welfare state, we realise that the Church has always been at the forefront of meeting very real felt needs in society. Where there are marginalised, broken, disenfranchised people, the Church has been there to offer practical and visible signs of hope.
The Church has always had an abundance of hope; our message is SO hope filled. The gospel is a transformative message, a message that takes people from servants to friends of God (John 15:15), in light of the ultimate hope that Christ will make all things new. In other words, Christ is profoundly committed to our transformation, which comes as we practically outwork Christian community together. In a world that will tell us that independence is the highest goal for us as persons, the gospel pushes back with a vision of community defined by interdependence and strong, lasting relationships where we uphold one another.
As difficult as this task may seem, I believe the Church is perfectly situated to be a place of healing and hope for those who are currently experiencing the darkness and isolation that often accompany a mental health challenge. This occurs as we proclaim a message of ultimate hope in Christ’s rescue mission to every single atom of creation, including our mental health. It also happens as we compassionately welcome and walk alongside others in a way that testifies to the love and compassion of Christ himself, who tenderly walks with us in all phases and stages of our lives.
Help your community start a conversation today. Download The Sanctuary Course – an 8-part journey using films and a discussion guide to explore the intersection of faith, mental health, and theology.
Dan Whitehead is the director of the Sanctuary Course which explores faith, mental health and theology. He is committed to helping the Church unlock the power of ultimate hope and transformation, as well as compassionate community which are integral to the Christian story. In this piece, he explores why it matters and what it would take for every church to offer understanding and acceptance to everyone, whatever their mental health.