by Stephen Grcevich, MD, adapted from his new book, Mental Health and the Church: A Ministry Handbook for Including Children and Adults with ADHD, Anxiety, Mood Disorders, and Other Common Mental Health Conditions.
Churches represent subcultures with norms and expectations—often unwritten—for appropriate conduct and social interaction.
An essential first step for church leaders who want to minister more effectively with individuals and families affected by mental illness is to acknowledge that assumptions regarding the ability of attendees and visitors to meet our expectations for conduct or social interaction may need to be revisited.
A next step involves developing a deeper understanding of how children and adults with common mental health conditions experience our ministry environments differently than other attendees do. Church leaders involved in inclusion efforts can then review established ministry customs and practices from the perspective of a child, teen, or adult affected by a significant condition.
The First Barrier: Stigma
Our challenge in serving those with mental illness is heightened because they often try hard to hide their disability from others. They may be especially hesitant to share psychiatric diagnoses they’ve been given by mental health or medical professionals or discuss past or current treatments.
I often find the children and families served by my practice to be very reluctant to disclose the presence of a mental health condition to teachers, school administrators, coaches, and other adults involved in the child’s life—including grandparents or extended family members. Many refuse to accept beneficial accommodations and supports. Stigma perpetuates the resistance to acknowledge the presence of a mental health condition and to seek effective treatment. We need to recognize how two different types of stigma impact the challenges churches face in outreach to individuals and families impacted by mental illness—the stigma in our general culture connected to persons with mental illness and specific treatments for mental illness, and the stigma uniquely connected with mental illness in the church.
We’re too quick in the church to conceptualize mental illness as an either-or choice between science and the Bible or between medical and spiritual solutions and do damage to families in the process. There are times when mental health problems are a consequence of sin. It’s not unusual for me to see kids experience signs of anxiety or depression or to report the presence of suicidal thoughts after making the choice to become sexually active. Lots of children’s struggles with self-control result from the effects of stress hormones on brain development following parental neglect or trauma. I don’t presume to know the cause of a child’s problems without taking the time to get to know the child and their family. Neither should pastors and other church leaders.
The Second Barrier: Anxiety
Imagine having an untreated medical condition that causes your brain to flood your bloodstream with stress hormones when you find yourself surrounded by unfamiliar people in unfamiliar settings. What symptoms might you experience? Your physical distress may be accompanied by an overwhelming sense of dread and thoughts of getting to a hospital as quickly as possible. You would likely go to great lengths to avoid entering the types of situations that trigger your condition.
Full participation in the church often requires vulnerability, social risk, and change—all of which can be incredibly challenging for those with anxiety. We as church leaders can demonstrate Christ’s love for persons who struggle with anxiety by graciously helping them join our ministry environments and providing them with the necessary supports that will allow them to grow alongside the rest of the church.
Stigma and anxiety represent two of the most common barriers that people with mental health conditions face when considering participation in the church.
But they are not the only barriers.
— Stephen Grcevich, MD, Mental Health and the Church
How to Use This Book
Mental Health and the Church will help you understand all of the significant barriers that people with mental health conditions face when participating in the church; discover what the church can do to help; and get equipped to implement a practical mental health inclusion strategy.
What people are saying:
“In this thoughtful, compassionate, and practical book, Stephen Grcevich provides a great resource destined to facilitate careful and thoughtful reflection on key issues and a faithful pastoral response that is relevant for every Christian community. Dr. Grcevich has done a real service for church.” –Dr. John Swinton, Chair in Divinity and Religious Studies, University of Aberdeen
“Dr. Grcevich does not ask us to be perfect, but he does ask us to do what we can. And for most of us, there is much more we can do to welcome people who struggle to find their place among us. This book outlines a realistic, practical approach to inclusion, informed by expert knowledge and experience. It’s a must-read for every church leader.” –Amy Simpson, author of Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission