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Survey: Few churches preach, assist with mental illness

Published: 
Tuesday, September 30, 2014
Your Daily Health
Megachurch pastor Rick Warren and wife Kay. Their son Matthew suffered from mental illness and killed himself last year.

Protestant clergy rarely preach about mental illness to their congregations and only one-quarter of congregations have a plan in place to assist members who have a mental health crisis, a new LifeWay Research survey found.

The findings, in a nation where one in four Americans have suffered with mental illness, demonstrate a need for greater communication, said Ed Stetzer, executive director of the evangelical research firm, a ministry of LifeWay Christian Resources, which is an agency of the Southern Baptist Convention.

When it comes to mental illness, researchers found that 66 per cent mention it rarely, once a year or never, 26 per cent speak about it several times a year, four per cent mention it about once a month, three per cent talk about it several times a month.

“When we look at what we know statistically— the prevalence of mental illness and the lack of preaching on the subject—I think that’s a disconnect,” said Stetzer.

The survey taken among evangelical and mainline churches was funded by Colorado-based Focus on the Family and an anonymous donor whose family member suffered from schizophrenia. It included the perspectives of pastors, churchgoers who have suffered from mental illness—depression, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia—and family members of the mentally ill.

Author Kay Warren commended the survey’s findings and said she and her husband, megachurch pastor Rick Warren, have been vocal about the “terrible scourge.” Their son Matthew, 27, suffered from mental illness and killed himself last year.

She urged church leaders to not only preach about it but allow those struggling with mental illness to give testimonies to their congregations.

“I would encourage any pastor or church leader, yes preach a message, but put in front of your people those who are living with mental illness so they can share their stories and become human in that process,” she said in a conference call last Monday.

In contrast to the findings about the relative scant attention the pastors give to the subject, almost seven in ten mentally ill people said churches should help families discover local resources for support.

While 68 per cent of pastors said their church maintains a list of local mental health resources for church members, just 28 per cent of families are aware of such resources.

Jared Pingleton, director of counselling services at Focus on the Family, said pastors are often turned to for help but they may not have had any seminary or Bible school training to help them meet parishioners’ mental health needs.

The survey found that less than half of pastors—41 per cent—said they had taken seminary courses on caring for the mentally ill.

LifeWay found that slightly more than a quarter of pastors—27 per cent—said their church has a plan for supporting families with a mentally ill member.

Focus on the Family has developed resources for pastors based on the research, including “practical tools and tips about how to make a referral to a trusted Christian colleague,” said Pingleton, a minister and clinical psychologist who was on the conference call with Kay Warren.

He said shared worldviews are “vital” in the referral process “so that the pastor knows that they can refer a member of their flock, one of their sheep, to someone who will not, as it were, fleece them.”

The LifeWay survey did not specifically address the issue of the faith of mental health professionals.

The survey results are based on a May 7-31 survey of 1,000 Protestant pastors and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points. Smaller random samples of mentally ill and family members were drawn from a pre-screened national panel.

(RNS/The Huffington Post)