Let's Talk About Mental Health, Pt. 2

 Photo by  Ryan Melaugh

Photo by Ryan Melaugh

I recently had the pleasure of sitting down with Dustin Lunceford and Christi Castleberry, two Vintage Partners and Masters students in Marriage and Family Therapy at NOBTS, to discuss the issue of mental health and how it relates to Christianity.

You can find Part 1 of our conversation here. We pick up in Part 2 looking at how families and church communities can point people struggling with mental illness to Jesus.

Ross: If I'm a family member or a friend of someone dealing with a mental illness, how can I offer support to that person without being overwhelming?

Dustin: One of the pieces of advice I give is to talk about it. If you're a parent, and your child comes to you and says they feel really sad, ask them questions and let them talk about it. If you've got someone in your life who discloses they're dealing with mental illness, talk to them about it. 

They're already thinking about it, and for you to ask them about it can be really comforting because you're someone who wants to hear about it. Sometimes people just want someone to sit in the sadness with them, and they want to know you're there for them. 

Christi: I also think it's important for people to want to help because they actually want to help, not because they feel guilty. That's not really helping, and it's just a codependency kind of thing. Don't try to sugar coat things. We're not God, and we don't know why He allowed [a mental illness] to happen, so don't pretend like you have all the answers. Just listen; sometimes we don't have to say anything. We all have the "why" questions for God, and rarely do we get answers for those. 

So much of what we go through is part of our sanctification and of drawing us closer to the heart of God so that we are able to be the hands and feet of God. I think when you're able to sit with someone in silence, without having all the answers, there's a level of love and trust and comfort there. 

Life is not all smooth and rainbows. We have hard things in life, and some parents are handed that in their child. We need to come alongside them and love them and tell them fifty times if we need to, "We're here for you. Feel free to reach out to us whenever you need."

Ross: How can the local church become and continue to be a place of healing, not just for spiritual issues alone, but encompassing mental health as well?

Dustin: One thing that I always appreciate is when churches let "twelve-step" programs use their facilities. There are a lot of people in those meetings who have rough pasts and probably are dealing with mental disorders who would never step foot in a church. Maybe they've had a bad experience or don't know what to do at church. 
Having meetings there lets people in and allows the church to meet people who are searching for something. It introduces people to the building and probably lets them get to know someone from that church.

Christi: A really practical thing that would have an awesome ripple effect down into a congregation would be if every person in your church's leadership were required to go to counseling. That sounds crazy, but if you have a leadership team who are very self-aware of their struggles and emotions and are working on those things, I would think that would be incredibly positive. 

It's more than just dealing with "secret sins," because we're more than just our sin. We're so much more than who we are on Sundays; that's just a snapshot of who we are. 

Ross: The statistics bear that out. Almost a quarter of surveyed pastors said they've experienced some kind of mental illness, and 12 percent said they had received a diagnosis for a mental health condition.1 If leaders in the church were to begin saying that this is something they are dealing with, would that help to level the playing field for others who are trying to process that for themselves?

Dustin: Definitely. Whether it's the pastor or the youth leader or the single mom with three kids who barely makes it to church on time, if they are battling something, there should be space for people to be able to stand up and tell others. People can relate to that and begin to ask questions and have an open dialogue when there's a face with it more than just statistics. If pastors are experiencing mental illness, it may not be wise to try and preach on it right in the middle of it. But certainly in retrospect, as there is healing and growth, it can be a testimony to what God can do.

Christi: I would hope that a congregation seeing their leadership working on their issues would encourage that congregation to work on their issues too. Leaders can also facilitate training on basic empathy skills or on forming emotional boundaries to help people with things that we all struggle with sometimes. We can hear, "Love your neighbor as yourself," and go to an extreme where we "love" someone to the point where it’s damaging to ourselves.

Dustin: Christi is talking about something we call "self-care," in light of loving our neighbor as ourselves. I was leading a D-Now, and a kid asked me, "What if I hate myself?" You would probably hate other people too! We can view our neighbor in such a heightened way that it's detrimental to ourselves. In church, we need to teach good self-care skills, so that the people in churches aren't over-exerted and know their limits.

Ross: How valuable is it for churches to invest in education as it pertains to mental health?

Christi: It's definitely important. They need to educate and equip people with the skills to know how to talk about it.

Dustin: When I came into my seminary training, I thought that information was the cure, but it's not. [Mental health] is just like any other issue. You can preach a sermon on a topic till you're blue in the face, but until people know how to grow and what to do, it's just hot air filling a room. So, teaching combined with training, a time for people to be equipped, is a great thing. 

Christi: I think about the ripple effect this could have in a congregation when you teach them about mental health. If the statistics are true, and 1 in 4 people is dealing with mental health issues,2 that means that we all know somebody in our sphere of influence who is going through that.

If we're equipping a congregation to know how to facilitate those conversations and how to be encouraging, we're really equipping them for another way of sharing the gospel, to relate to a person and introduce them to Christ. That person may not have been engaged before, because mental illness kept them out of the church before. The implications of that are amazing, and I think God would honor that.

Ross: Only a quarter of surveyed churches have a plan to assist families affected by mental illness. On top of that, two-thirds of pastors say their church maintains a list of local mental health resources for church members, but only a quarter of families are aware that those resources are available. How can a church go about building a strategic plan for engaging mental health issues?

Christi: In order to have a plan, you have to know what the problem is. If you don't have youth in your church, you probably don't need a youth pastor. Focus on the problems you do see, and resource yourself. That's a discipline in and of itself in trying to do research and finding good resources. Someone on a leadership team needs to commit to doing research in their local area and to knowing how to best reach people coming into their church. We need to know how to come alongside people and help them in a healthy way. 

If the shepherd of the flock has no idea how to do that, then someone may not feel that there's hope for their situation. Our message from Christ is that there is hope, but then what we're delivering implies that we don't know what to do. We can't really rest on that excuse anymore. 

Dustin: This is a practical question. Having a list of resources could be good, but does the church staff know where that list is? Including availability of people and resources in announcements could be a helpful way to communicate it. Maybe churches need to have a local Christian counselor or psychologist on speed dial. 

It's also one thing to have a list of resources, and it's another for leaders to know those resources personally. I think it's important for leaders to have these relationships, not just resources, not just a list, so that a pastor can say that they know a person who is equipped to handle things that may be out of their league. 

Ross: What benefits do you see for a church that begins to talk about mental health more accurately?

Dustin: I see the growth process that happens in counseling as a part of sanctification and discipleship. If teens and youth get emotionally healthy and can love God and love people well, they're going to grow up to be young adults who can have kids who become teens who can repeat that. 

It very much mirrors this idea of what discipleship looks like. Jesus picked fishermen, and I'm sure they had all kinds of issues going on in their lives. As people get healthy, they tend to replicate that in others. Christ was the perfect example of health, so as this progresses you move toward that image of God.

Christi: If you have good emotional health, you can have good spiritual health. It can produce a congregation who believes God's word and strives to live it out. You're going to see a lot more fruits of the Spirit and more selflessness to reach out to people who feel broken in the congregation.

Ross: How would you like to see the conversation change about mental health and mental illness within the church at large?

Dustin: I'm under the impression that if you are a breathing human being, you should see a counselor. We all have issues and lies we've believed and hurts we've experienced. If we are the body of Christ, then we need to be there for each other. In America, I think we have this idea that privacy is king, but I don't know if that's necessarily how the church needs to work. 

I would like the conversation to lean more toward encouraging people to get counseling or to talk to somebody. With the way the church is going, with more people coming in that didn't grow up in the church, we have so many more issues and different issues than we've experienced in the past. So it's going to be a growing need to normalize the conversation about mental health.

Christi: These things are not a problem that can be solved. It's an ongoing process, and it's not going away. I think we're learning more about how complex it really is and how crucial the idea of community is. What facilitates something like depression continuing is isolation. When I feel isolated, it leaves so much room to think wrong things and to be influenced to think I'm the only one who deals with something. 

God created us with this innate desire to know one another and to know Him. In community, we're able to come alongside people who are struggling and walk with them.

If you haven't checked out Part 1 of our conversation, you can here:

1 Mental Illness Remains Taboo Topic for Many Pastors, LifeWay Research, http://www.lifewayresearch.com/2014/09/22/mental-illness-remains-taboo-topic-for-many-pastors/.

2 Mental Illness Facts and Numbers, NAMI, http://www2.nami.org/factsheets/mentalillness_factsheet.pdf.