Mental health issues are a growing area of concern for faith leaders seeking to minister effectively to their congregations and communities. Training in mental health at the seminary level tends to be limited (where it exists at all), yet people often seek out faith leaders in addition to or instead of mental health professionals.
We sat down with Dr. Henry Cloud, psychologist and author of Changes That Heal, a best-selling work that explores various issues related to mental health (as well as mental health and the church), to discuss this important topic of how faith leaders should approach questions about mental health.
Below you’ll find 10 questions for faith leaders about mental health issues, with observations and thoughts from Dr. Cloud included throughout.
1. Why is addressing mental health important in the church?
One of the most needed things is for church leaders to acknowledge—publicly and often—that people are more than just bodies and souls. When church leadership publicly proclaims that church is a safe place to express emotions, have feelings, and even discuss mental health issues, their churches become places of support.
Dr. Cloud on Christians and feelings:
“Some Christians view feelings with suspicion. They think emotions are unimportant or unreliable. Yet our feelings play an enormous role in our motivation and behavior. Think of a time when hurt feelings prompted someone to lash out in anger or to take revenge. Consider that some people have been hospitalized for depressions after years of trying to ignore their feelings. And on the positive side, the Bible says that Jesus was motivated by his compassion, a deep feeling of empathy.”
Dr. Cloud sums up the proper balance this way:
“Feelings should neither be ignored nor placed in charge.”
2. What is the church’s role in supporting mental health in the church?
The church must be a place of love and support for all, including those struggling with mental health issues. This imperative does not exclude or take away from other aspects of the church’s mission. Instead, the presence of love is crucial in accomplishing those other aspects, too.
Here’s what Dr. Cloud had to say about why church leadership training must emphasize love:
“Rarely do isolated people feel as if God loves them. People who feel unloved in their human relationships feel unloved by God. Since one of the ways God loves us is through his body or believers, those who are cut off from that body can’t feel his love. Isolated people usually do not have a lot of warm, loving experiences of any kind to draw on.”
These observations are true for all believers, of course, not just those experiencing mental illness. But this latter group is especially at risk of being isolated — and of feeling left out or unloved by the church.
3. What are some ways church leadership can foster mental health in the church? In their community?
Outside of clinical and physiological considerations, one of the biggest threats to mental health is isolation — something that society has had plenty of in the last few years thanks to COVID-19. Isolation can lead to all sorts of ill mental effects, including anxiety and depression.
Notice what Proverbs 12:25 identifies as a solution to anxiety:
“Anxiety weighs down the heart, but a kind word cheers it up.”
A kind word — from someone in a person’s life and community — is one antidote to anxiety.
So the church can foster mental health simply by being the church —by being a group of people living in real community and seeking to grow connections within their broader geographical community.
Dr. Cloud on the need for community:
“We really do need relationship, and we cannot live very well without it. We have already seen what happens when it’s absent. Remember what God said in the Garden of Eden: “It is not good for man to be alone.”
4. What are the biggest challenges facing church leadership when it comes to mental health in the church?
One significant challenge is a lack of resources (at least, a lack of quality resources) in this area, both in terms of church leadership training programs and mental health church resources (those designed for individuals rather than leaders).
Too much of what’s out there veers too far in one direction or the other, either over-spiritualizing the physical and mental or over-clinicalizing the spiritual.
There’s a great need for church mental health programs that serve both mind and spirit, addressing the spiritual and the clinical — and identifying when a particular issue needs professional referral.
Dr. Cloud gets at the dual nature of mental health struggles:
“There are biblical solutions for your struggles with depression, anxiety, panic, addictions, and guilt, and these solutions lie in your understanding of basic developmental tasks—tasks that you may have failed to complete when you were growing up and tasks that bring changes that heal. These tasks involve growing up and into the ‘image’ of the one who created you.”
5. How can church leaders apply a faith-based approach to mental health issues?
For too long, many churches have simply refused to discuss mental health issues, almost as if they don’t exist. Thankfully, this approach is less common than it once was, and some churches are even beginning to build out formal church mental health programs to serve their members and communities.
The Scriptures do have plenty to say about our emotions and feelings, and they provide divinely inspired guidance for all sorts of issues — including mental health issues.
Philippians 4:6-7, for example, says, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and repetition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
And beyond the Scriptures themselves, people need people, too.
“James reminds us that people have more than just spiritual needs: ‘Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?’ (James 2:15-16). Many times people have emotional, not just physical needs. They need the presence of another, as Paul did, and this is the way that God wants to love them.”
Church leaders, then, can apply a faith-based approach to mental health issues by reinforcing these truths: that people need the Scriptures and other people.
6. What stops people in the church from seeking help with mental health issues?
Often, it’s a sense of self-sufficiency, or a false belief that “real Christians” can be a religious version of self-sufficient, capable in every moment of solving their own problems (with the help of God and Scripture, of course).
True, in many cases, God and the Scriptures are all we need to work out a problem. But not in every case.
Dr. Cloud puts it this way:
“Troubled times, sickness, and other struggles require answers and support outside of ourselves. We are not intended to go it alone, and we will ultimately fail if we do not reach out. We were made to take in and use grace, love, and truth from two external sources: God and other people… The Bible teaches that we need both the divine and the human, both God and community.”
7. How can a pastor or church leader teach about mental health if they’re struggling with it?
Transparency can go a long way. There’s nothing at all wrong with a pastor admitting mental health struggles to the congregation, and many pastors would benefit from the relational help they’d receive if people know of the struggle. Leaders may also gain new opportunities to minister to those with mental health needs: some people will be more willing to speak with someone who they believe truly understands what they’re going through.
Pastors struggling with mental health also must get help themselves. That’s one of the advantages of the Churches That Heal digital toolkit for churches: the program starts with addressing the mental health needs of pastors and faith leaders.
8. What does the Bible say about mental health?
While the Bible isn’t an encyclopedia covering every mental health diagnosis in academic detail, God has plenty to say about mental health in the Scriptures. Here are some passages that speak to mental health needs:
“The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” Psalm 34:18
“And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.” Ephesians 3:17-19
“Anxiety weighs down the heart, but a kind word cheers it up.” Proverbs 12:25
“Gracious words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones.” Proverbs 16:24
“Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and repetition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 4:6-7
“Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.” 1 Peter 5:7
Scripture does not always tell us how to do these things. But it gives clear guidance on what to do, in many situations.
9. When do you know it’s time to refer a church member to a professional?
In any situation where the church member appears to be a danger to themselves or others, referral to the appropriate party or authority is critical. State laws vary, so be sure to follow them as you err on the side of caution.
In less urgent situations, the answer can be less clear. When is it time to refer someone, and to what kind of professional? A therapist? A licensed professional counselor? A psychiatrist or psychologist?
According to one expert, most of the time, pastors will refer to a counselor as a first step. A licensed counselor can then make further recommendations and referrals, if warranted.
10. How do I refer a church member to a mental health professional?
Be sure to check with the church member about health insurance coverage, which may dictate or limit which counselors would be covered and which would not. Many church members will desire to see a Christian licensed counselor, which is usually advisable (though not required).
Churches would benefit from creating a list of vetted counselors and other mental health professionals. Feel free to contact these professionals (in a non-crisis moment) to ask about methods and relation to faith communities.
Christians need community, and for certain issues they may need skilled help beyond just Bible reading and prayer.
Faith leaders looking to bolster their efforts in responding to mental health issues should consider Churches That Heal, a digital toolkit for churches that starts with addressing church leaders’ mental health. Only then are church leaders ready for further training and to launch their own church mental health programs.
Visit Churchesthatheal.com to learn more about this important new resource.