Written by Mike Riddell, Australia
Over the past 20 years of attending church, I’ve noticed that there are certain topics that are regularly covered, like our identity in Christ, our relationships with others, justice, and how to partner with God on mission. All these topics help us process life experiences through the lens of faith.
Up until the last few years, I could count with one hand the number of times mental health and faith were addressed in the church environments I found myself in. On the contrary, I’ve lost count of the number of times mental health has been a topic raised in one-on-one conversations, or in other settings like university lectures, Ted Talks, or even the news!
I’m not sure whether my experience resonates with yours, but it is safe to say that mental health is just as much a matter of concern for those who attend church as those who don’t. Consider this finding from a National Church Life Survey from a few years ago: one in six church attenders sought or received treatment for a mental health issue in the previous two years. This mirrors the reality of mental health issues experienced by the Australian population as a whole.
Let that sink in.
Now reflect on these questions: Has mental health been addressed in the church environments you’ve found yourself in? If so, how did it go? If not, are we missing or avoiding a significant opportunity to share hope in Jesus to those experiencing mental health struggles?
Now, I’m not an armchair critic of the church and its attempts or its failure in addressing mental health matters. I love the church.
In fact, I’m involved in the church and have worked in a church as a youth and young adults pastor for six years.
In my current role as a next gen pastor, which involves facilitating continuing discipleship from babies to young adults (and their parents), at least half of my time in any given week is spent on one-on-one conversations with people, many of whom are navigating mental health challenges in the midst of their journeys of following Jesus.
But I’m inexperienced when it comes to dealing with mental health issues. When I first started working as a pastor, I would find myself uncertain about how to respond to someone’s experience with anxiety or depression.
I didn’t know whether the right thing to do was to pray, share a Bible verse, or to simply listen while trying to remain calm as I heard questions and experiences which I had no answer to. When someone expressed nervousness or anxiety around reading the Bible and praying out loud, or being in the midst of a loud crowd, I would often respond with an enthusiastic, “Don’t worry about it; you’ll be fine and you’ll do great!”
While this encouragement is not necessarily wrong, I’m also becoming more aware that such cavalier and passionate responses could actually overlook someone’s heartfelt expressions of reservation that may be due to their mental health struggles.
This was revealed to me through some honest conversations with some individuals, which helped me learn new and better ways to respond with care.
Of course, I have wised up a lot over the last six years working in my present church, and have picked up a few helpful learnings:
1. Cultivate a church environment where mental health is not seen as a taboo
One of the striking traits of my current church was the frequency, freedom, and focus on people sharing testimonies of the hope they’ve found in Jesus through their mental health experiences. These were shared through interviews, testimonies, and in small groups or one-on-one conversations. In a way, it normalised the issue of mental health, enabling and empowering others to bravely share their own experiences.
Seeing people experience the freedom to share how they’re really going in life and how Jesus meets them where they’re at, shows me the kind of environment that should be present within our faith communities.
My church also did a three-week sermon series on mental health called, Peace of Mind, exploring how faith fits with mental health. It was an incredibly powerful series which connected the dots between the science of the mind, the wisdom of God who created it, and the peace of Jesus in the midst of it all. Ultimately, this series helped people reconcile challenges and questions about mental health with their faith, providing a way to respond helpfully for themselves and for others.
Through the sharing of personal stories, and church-wide initiatives, I’ve seen that it can be incredibly comforting and reassuring for those who are experiencing mental health struggles to know that others with similar experiences are willing to share their own mental health journey and the hope that God provides.
2. Recognise your own limitations
I once heard a psychologist say that in the same way that they would not give legal advice to someone, people should be wary of offering advice in fields where they do not have professionally recognised training and qualifications.
I am not a mental health practitioner, so it’s really important that I recognise what I can’t or shouldn’t do when supporting someone with mental health struggles.
Being aware of this has helped me to become a better listener when someone shares their mental health story with me. I seek to ask good questions to help them give expression to their experiences, and then let them do most of the talking, listening with a non-judgemental, calm, and attentive demeanour.
My focus is on them feeling heard, instead of jumping into action by offering advice or counsel. Most of all, while I’ll always offer to pray, listen, and talk with someone about their mental health, I almost always encourage them to consider having a chat with a trained counsellor or psychologist, or to see their doctor for a referral.
Regardless of what they choose to do next, I reassure them that I’ll do all that I can to support them and walk alongside them through their journey of mental wellness.
3. Your mental health is important too!
The thing that’s most beneficial for my ability to support others in their mental health is to properly care for my own. Recently, I visited my doctor to get a referral to see a psychologist when some of the circumstances of 2020 affected my mental health. At home, I felt distant from my family, while at work, I felt overly lethargic and stressed.
Being able to chat about my experiences with a psychologist proved to be an incredibly cathartic experience, and in turn, helped me to better respond to stressful situations, and proactively engage in life-giving conversations and practices like journalling or scheduling moments of rest throughout the day.
This not only improved my own mental health, but it also set me up to better care for others, because I was better at caring for myself.
Having said all that, I recognise that there’s still a long way to go when it comes to addressing and responding to issues of mental health.
But I’m convinced that we are better together, with God at work in and through us, individually as well as collectively. The church has a significant role to play in journeying with others, ensuring all receive the care and support needed.
To finish, here are a few questions I’d encourage all of us to reflect on with regard to our own experience of mental health and the church:
 Pepper, M., Powell, R. & Jacka, K. (2019), Mental health support rated as good yet many churches unaware, http://ncls.org.au/news/mental-health-support-from-church
1 in 6 Australians is currently experiencing depression, or anxiety, or both,https://www.beyondblue.org.au/media/statistics.
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