The local church is often the first place people go for help in addressing mental health challenges. Matthew Stanford sees this as a divine opportunity and suggests ways churches can address the subject of mental illness more openly and honestly.
Negative attitudes and beliefs toward people who suffer with mental illness are common. In fact, social stigma is the second most common reason people report for not accessing mental health care. Myths — for example, that individuals with mental health problems are violent, lazy, or demon possessed — permeate our society. In a recent survey, a third of individuals with mental health problems reported worrying about others judging them, while a quarter said they had lied to avoid telling people they had sought mental health services in the past.
While a majority of those living with serious mental illness and their family members believe that churches should talk more openly about mental illness, more than 60 percent of Protestant pastors report rarely or never speaking about the topic in sermons or large group meetings. Sadly, only 12 percent of church leaders feel that mental illness is openly discussed in a healthy way within their congregation. But there are simple steps churches can take to develop a safe and accepting environment for those living with serious mental illness.
Simple ways to start the conversation
These suggestions for simple changes will help start a conversation about mental health within your faith community.
- Pray collectively during the service each week for those who are struggling with a mental disorder. Use the actual names of the disorders during the prayer (e.g., depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder).
- Prepare sermons that acknowledge the struggles experienced by those living with mental illness and their families.
- Invite a member of the church who has struggled with mental illness to share his testimony with the congregation.
- Place brochures and other sources of information regarding mental illness and available mental health resources in the back of the church, in the bulletin, or in the pews.
- Invite mental health professionals to speak or offer seminars at the church on topics like suicide or addiction.
Choose your words carefully.
One way to eliminate the stigma related to mental illness is to carefully choose your words when describing mental health conditions and the people who live with them. We can choose to speak words that give life or words that shame.
Stigmatizing language bring shame. Its purpose is to minimize, disgrace, or dehumanize someone in order to justify inaction and lack of compassion. Derogatory terms such as “crazy,” “nuts,” “psycho,” and “loony” constitute stigmatizing language and have unfortunately become part of everyday lingo. These terms express contempt and disrespect toward individuals living with mental illness, even if the words are not being spoken directly to them; they simply should not be used.
Using mental health terms to explain everyday individual quirks or behaviors that are common to many — for example, using “OCD” to describe someone who is organized or “anorexic” to depict a woman who is thin — is also stigmatizing. Such mental health cliches minimize the severity of mental disorders and further confuse people’s limited understanding of these complex conditions.
Put the person before the illness.
When speaking of those who have been legitimately diagnosed with mental health conditions, always put the person first, not the illness. For instance, do not use language that defines people according to the diagnosis, such as, “He’s schizophrenic” or “She is a bipolar.” The person is far more than the diagnosis. Instead say, “He has been diagnosed with schizophrenia” or “She is living with bipolar disorder.”
Likewise, when talking about a suicide, do not say that a person “committed suicide.” The word “committed” suggest that the individual performed a reasoned and rational act, much like if someone has “committed a crime” or “committed a sin.” Rather, say that the individual “died by suicide.” In situations in which it was commonly known that the person was struggling with a diagnosed mental disorder it may also be appropriate to say that the death resulted from the disorder. For example, “he died as a result of depression” or “her death was the result of bipolar disorder.”
A divine opportunity
Research indicates that the local church is the first place people go for help in addressing mental health challenges. Churches can embrace this as a divine opportunity by addressing the subject of mental illness more openly and honestly.
This article is excerpted from Madness and Grace: A Practical Guide for Pastoral Care and Serious Mental Illness (Templeton Press, 2021) by Matthew S. Stanford, PhD. Used by permission. The book is available through Cokesbury and Amazon.
- The Church and the Response to the Mental Health Crisis, an in-depth interview with Dr. Matthew S. Stanford
- 5 Rules for Engaging Taboo Subjects in Churches by Elizabeth Evans Hagan