Many leaders, members admit PCUSA not equipped to address mental health issues

Parishioners sitting on church pews as seen from above. | Wikimedia Commons/Runner1928

A large study conducted by Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has indicated that nearly half of its leaders, ministers and members believe the denomination is not equipped to welcome people with mental health concerns into the daily life of the church.

While 97 percent of members know someone who has or previously had a mental health concern, at least 49 percent of members say the church lacks the capacity to help integrate people with significant mental health issues into the regular church life, according to the Presbyterian News Service, which cited results of a recent study conducted on behalf of the Presbyterian Mental Health Initiative that was called for by the 2018 General Assembly.

The churchwide study, in which 6,000 people from the denomination participated, also shows that while 54 percent of church leaders think their church is interested in learning more about mental health ministry, only 30 percent think they are equipped for that ministry.

“PC(USA) members, leaders, and ministers want to address the issues of mental health and mental illness in their communities and churches but do not know what to do, or what resources are available to them and, in general, are unprepared to act,” the summary notes of the study say.

The study, which surveyed five different demographic groups — church members, ministers, local church leaders, mid-council leaders and seminaries — shows that 90 percent of members are unaware of funds, information or resources available to churches for mental health ministries.

“The study helped clarify that churches are often in the role of ‘first responders,’ but many don’t feel equipped to respond when someone is struggling with mental health,” said Donna Miller, associate for Mental Health Ministry within Compassion, Peace & Justice Ministry. “The study also showed the need to address stigma and make churches safe places to talk about mental health struggles.”

She added, “In the ministers’ comments, over and over again, ministers brought up the need to feel more equipped in terms of referring, so how to refer, when to refer, where to refer, which is something that requires a lot of local knowledge. A number of ministers commented on the importance of knowing the difference between spiritual and mental health care, and recognizing when to refer.”

Among those who sought training, 61 percent found the training effective.

The 2018 General Assembly also urged the denomination to build capacity in the skills of mental health first-aid, suicide prevention and “trauma-informed responses to mental distress and trauma-informed pastoral care.”

Recommendations also called for the church to focus on the skills of “companionship” to better walk alongside individuals with mental health concerns and their loved ones, and for the church to advocate with and for people with mental health conditions “to create safe and stigma-free communities for all.”

According to recent statistics, nearly 20 percent of Americans, that's over 44 million people, suffer from some kind of mental health condition. The suicide rate among 18- to 19-year-olds increased 56 percent in the years 2008 to 2017, the CDC reported.

More Christian leaders, including Rick and Kay Warren of Saddleback Church and the wives of pastors who committed suicide, have been leading efforts to remove the stigma around mental health and improve outreach.

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