Science for the Church recently hosted a series of programs at One Family Church in St. Louis. Pastor Brent Roam specifically asked that we address spirituality and mental health. Afterwards, through the generosity of Dr. Fred Ware and Howard University’s School of Divinity, we convened leaders of Black, Hispanic, and Asian American churches. They too named mental health as a key science topic for their clergy and congregants.
The Time is Now
For more than two years, news headlines first anticipated and then detailed the worsening mental health situation in America. Heartbreaking articles on addiction, depression, anxiety, and suicide continue to describe a crisis that besets every corner of America and cuts across our many divides – politics, income, race, religion, education, and geography.
Here are some statistics: one-in-five adults suffered from mental illness (52.9 million Americans) in 2021. For 14.2 million American adults the diagnosis is severe. Of those suffering, fewer than half received treatment and the young (18–25 years-old) are more susceptible to illness and receive the least care.
These numbers tell us that wherever five or more gather, not only is Christ among them, but one likely suffers some type of mental illness. This is where science—the many mental health professionals that understand addiction, suicide, anxiety, and the like—can help the church.
Healthy Churches Support Healing
I’m not a mental health professional, nor am I trained to treat even mild mental illnesses. I do, however, know a little about the connection between spirituality and health and its relevance to the role of faith in a mental health crisis.
Regularly attending and being active in the programs and practices of a faith community are shown to provide real health benefits. The connections are so positive that some have suggested that doctors prescribe church. Before I outline these links, a quick…
WARNING: If your church is toxic or abusive, get out and find help. Unhealthy congregations are never good for us; research clearly shows the negative impacts they have on our physical and mental health.
A Shot of Church
Benefits come from faith communities that help us grow in relationship with God and flourish as Christian disciples.
But it’s more like getting a vaccine than taking medicine. Vaccines are preventative, helping reduce the risk of illness, whereas medicine is a treatment to alleviate symptoms or heal us once we are sick. A vaccine protects us from catching tuberculosis, but we need antibiotics to treat strep throat.
Extensive research in spirituality and health shows spiritual practices and religious service attendance seem to work more like the former than the latter.
Demonstrated benefits include greater longevity, healthier lifestyles, and improved markers of mental health. There is much less scientific evidence that faith will cure what ails us. Yet, having a faith community to support us when we’re ill does have measurable benefits for coping and recovery.
My focus here is on those mental health benefits. Study after study on prayer and meditation, church attendance, forgiveness, generosity, gratitude, and the like show a common benefit: reduced stress or anxiety. These are key because high levels of stress and anxiety maintained for long periods of time eventually result in poor health. Longevity benefits found in those who regularly attend religious services are in large part due to the long-term relief church (and synagogue and mosque) give us from the challenges and worries of daily life.
When it’s healthy, church is good for us and especially good for our mental health. Those hugs during the passing of the peace, those prayers given and received, even gifts of time and talent—they all can ease our minds.
I’m not saying that church immunizes us against every ailment. We are fallen humans; mental struggle and the breakdown of our bodies are part of the human condition. Still, for those in supportive congregations, we are likely to do better when active in worship and fellowship than we would otherwise.
Why? Well, it’s pretty simple. It is precisely in such churches that we care for the needs of others. In America today, that includes care for one another’s mental health.
...David DeSteno’s How God Works (chapter 5) introduced me to this analogy around vaccines and medication in how we understand the role of religion in health.
...Circa 2017, I surveyed some of the research on spirituality for Orbiter magazine.
...Duke University’s Harold Koenig has done as much to document the benefits of faith for our health as anyone and summarizes some of what he has learned here.
...Store crisis hotline numbers in your cell phone.
...Find at least one local mental health professional to help you navigate your congregation’s needs. Many places have excellent resources like St. Louis, Philadelphia, North Carolina’s Triangle, and Southern California. Reply to this email if you need help finding one.
...Here is good advice on how to make a referral, but be aware there is not enough supply to meet the demand in many places. So your church must consider the issue of accessibility.
...Produced by the American Psychiatric Association, this is an excellent resource for church leaders.
The Church and Counseling
A shot of church is essentially what I presented to One Family Church. Then, Pastor Brent brought in three amazing counselors from CrossRoads Counseling, a collective of more than a dozen mental health professionals. They talked about anxiety and stress and how normal it is to experience them (several recounted their own struggles). They shared simple practices, many around breathing and meditation, to relieve stress. They talked about their work with children, youth, and adults, and how One Family Church was a connecting point between those in need of mental health care and CrossRoad’s counselors.
The first person a congregant reaches out to in a mental health crisis is often a pastor, but there remains a stigma around professional counseling for many Christians. Since we are all feeling this crisis of mental health, we have a renewed opportunity to do science for the church; to confront the stigma and connect with mental health professionals who can care for the one-in-five in our church families who are suffering.
A point I always make when presenting on spirituality and health is that there are two ways God heals and relieves our suffering. First, God can directly heal through prayer, touch, or ritual despite a dearth of scientific evidence supporting such miracles. Second, God can heal through the practice of modern medicine. God’s healing actions, I believe, are almost always mediated through others, be they priest, disciple, doctor, or counselor.
What Can Your Church Do?
This is the role of faith in a mental health crisis. We need to reverse any stigma, every church needs a local partner like CrossRoads Counseling, and we need to encourage our congregants to use their services. Sometimes you will be able to find a Christian provider (like CrossRoads), but others may only have secular options. The good news here is that the God revealed in Jesus Christ can work through both the faithful and faithless as we love one another by attending to our mental health.
While none of us on the SftC team are trained therapists or medical providers, if you want help finding a counseling service for your church, hit reply and we will help you find one.
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