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Reaching People with Mental Disorders and Mental Illness

“The flesh can bear only a certain number of wounds and no more, but the soul can bleed in ten thousand ways, and die over and over again each hour.” – Charles H. Spurgeon

The Church has traditionally been proactive at helping those with physical ailments or needs. They give clothing and operate food pantries to give to the poor and homeless. Many homeless shelters operate with church support. Churches will run transportation for the elderly and mentally disabled. However, few churches create welcoming environments for those with a mental disorder, or a mental illness, and their families. I do not know any which do it well, and it may not be possible, but it is a worthy goal and each step helps.

On one hand, I understand how this population is overlooked. Many who have or care for those with a condition do not speak up. They do not trust people to understand their problems or to trust their needs will be accommodated. On the other hand, I am confused why the Church would ignore a large segment of the population. Churches will do a lot to increase attendance and including this population could net 10% or more growth when you include their immediate family.

When leaders talk about mental illness during the weekend worship services, they communicate to the church body that people with mental illness are valued and grant permission for members and attendees to talk about it.”  – Stephen Grcevich

I have been thinking about how churches can reach these people. It is not as easy as the popular “targeting unchurched men”, being more relevant, more kids’ activities, etc. It takes work, training, and a loving security team able to not overreact. My thoughts are not complete and I am sure I am missing things but here is my start of a checklist. Answering no to any of the below can show an area where a church is failing to meet needs:

  • Does the leadership openly talk about a mental health inclusion plan? This reduces the stigma and lets people know they are included. Having congregants talking positively about inclusion, along with leadership, is even better.
  • Does your worship service have no flashing lights? Several conditions are sensitive to sensory overloads. Other strong stimulants, like loud music, should be balanced with the needs for having it.
  • Do you let organic physical connections occur without having a time before or during service where people are expected to shake hands or hug? Physical contact is a need for many people but it is an anxiety causing experience for some, especially from strangers.
  • Do first time guests have few interactions? Are they able to navigate without interactions? Forced interactions cause fear and anxiety in some. Inability to leave unobstructed is critical to some and they will leave before service starts if it is not clear they can leave later.
  • Are the doorways clear? Crowded, bustling doorways deter some people from entering and bottlenecks cause anxieties about physical contact and forced social interactions.
  • Are all expectations of behavior communicated? Examples are standing to sing, bowing heads at prayer, actions during communion, etc. Some people do not read cues well and feel ostracized when they look non conforming.
  • When you have group functions is there a place with qualified supervision for dependents with autism, anxiety disorder, behavior disorder, etc.?
  • If a family member disrupts the service with an outburst are they made to feel welcome? If they are given ‘looks’, made to feel like they are not welcome to stay in the service, or asked to leave to a special room, they are not made welcome to worship with the others. What if it is an autistic person? What if the outburst is from Tourettes Syndrome?
  • Does the church provide materials for parents to help manage young children or those with Autism or ADHD? Some guests may be reluctant to utilize childcare. Forcing people to use childcare will turn away many.
  • Are the youth group and young adult leaders trained to recognize changes in behavior? Some mental illnesses first manifest in teenagers through young adult. Parents can easily dismiss some changes as normal teen development. The young person will sometimes open up to a church leader in ways which shows changes in thought patterns when they are less talkative to parents. Church leaders cannot diagnose problems but they can communicate concerns. Most people moving into a psychotic episode will continue to deteriorate until they receive help and the chance of suicide increases until they get help.
  • Do leaders have open conversations with all regular attendees about their mental state? Do they ask each person how they are doing in depth? Does the discussion include suicide, self harm, or other violence?
  • Do leaders understand how prayers for those with mental disorders or illness should not focus on healing and why? While believing a change is possible is fine, consider how God made each of us different and we all need confirmation we are loved as we are. We all need Him and He works through us the way He made us.

These strategies are not limited to churches. Businesses need to be mindful of this large hidden portion of the population as well. Many of these concepts overlap. I am available for consultations or talks about this with your church or business.

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