12 August, 2022

What Should the Church Do about the Mental Health Crisis

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by | 1 July, 2022 | 1 comment

By Ben Cachiaras

We have a problem.

Emotional well-being is in serious decline. It’s a palpable crisis that was bad before the pandemic. The isolation, social upheaval, polarization, and massive changes with work, school, and life have exacerbated the crisis, creating an extended ambiguity and heightened stress that’s a perfect cocktail for burnout and emotional struggle. (I first heard it put that way by Paul Alexander, president of Hope International University.) No wonder the World Health Organization’s recent scientific brief states that the global prevalence of anxiety and depression has increased 25 percent since the pandemic’s arrival in early 2020.  

Recent surveys reveal a radical downturn in attitudes and soaring levels of anxiety and worry on all fronts. Anxiety is now the No. 1 issue for women. And for men, it’s No. 2 behind alcohol and drugs—which may be because men can’t say they’re anxious but mask it by hiding behind weed and booze or worse.

Whether it’s people who serve in the military or law enforcement, health care professionals, or educators—it seems everyone is struggling. A recent Barna survey revealed 38 percent of pastors seriously contemplated quitting during the past year. Mental disorders are the leading cause of disability worldwide, according to a 2014 article in the International Journal of Epidemiology; such disorders now affect one in five adults, and the percentage is growing, another professional journal reported.  

Generation Z (those born 1999 to 2015) is the most stressed-out generation ever. In recent years the share of high school students who say they experience “persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness” rose from 26 percent to 44 percent—the highest level of sadness ever recorded, according to an April 2022 article at the Association for Psychological Science website (psychologicalscience.org). So, almost half our kids feel hopeless! And 50 percent of parents of teens report worsened or new mental health problems in their teens since the beginning of the pandemic; most times it’s depression and anxiety. Many children and young adults are fearful, sad, and struggling with life. As a result, suicide has become epidemic; it is now the second-leading cause of death for young people ages 10 to 24.

Bottom line: When it comes to the people in our churches and the ones we’re seeking to reach, many are languishing rather than flourishing. And the worst may be yet to come . . . like a massive tsunami wave roiling at sea and heading our way.

We have a problem.

What can the church do? What must we do?

We can begin by anchoring our response upon Jesus and his care for people. With these emotional health statistics in mind, listen to how Jesus described his mission.

He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners . . . to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion . . . to bestow . . . a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair (Isaiah 61:1-3, emphasis mine; see also Luke 4:18-19).

Jesus had good news for those held captive, disabled, and oppressed by despair. These are precisely the issues people suffering from mental illness are struggling with today. First-century Palestine viewed what we call “mental health” differently, for sure. But there is no doubt Jesus would see mental health as a priority today.

The Gerasene demoniac was out of control, hopeless, and self-harming—symptoms similar to emotional distress today—and Jesus restored him to “his right mind” (Mark 5:15).

A close look at the Sermon on the Mount reveals “Jesus was concerned with exactly the same things that we label as mental health issues,” Christopher C.H. Cook writes in “Mental Health in the Kingdom of God.” That mountain sermon included themes of anxiety, prayer, forgiveness, and inner authenticity, showing that Jesus’ teaching on the kingdom of God was very much concerned with things we now consider to be the domain of “mental health.” In other words, good mental health is a trait of life in the kingdom of God. It’s how God made us to be.

It’s clear Jesus’ ministry extended beyond the “care of souls” or purely “spiritual matters.” He was concerned for the whole person. Matthew summarized Jesus’ focus this way:

[He was] teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people. News about him spread all over Syria, and people brought to himall who were ill with various diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed and he healed them all (Matthew 3:23-24).

Can there be any doubt Jesus wants to heal people who struggle with mental health?

In his book Madness and Grace: A Practical Guide for Pastoral Care and Serious Mental Illness, Matthew Stanford reminds us that people in psychological distress are more likely to turn to their pastor and the church than to a mental health care provider or physician. People are turning to the church like they turned to Jesus. What an opportunity! And it’s not just our own flock. The data indicate that those seeking help are often unchurched.

It’s time for the church to recognize that responding to the mental health crisis is central to our mission. Showing Christlike compassion, offering tangible help, and guiding people toward the “abundant” life (John 10:10) that God intends is exactly what Jesus came to do. And it’s what he calls us to do, as well.

Every church needn’t do everything. But every church can do something. Churches of any size or location that focus on these five R’s will make a difference.

Recognition

Church leaders sometimes resist talking about mental health issues. Maybe we don’t realize its devastating impact. Or we don’t understand that mental health challenges often lie behind the problems people bring to us. We must recognize we have a problem and then identify an issue as related to mental health when it arises.

Too many people are suffering in silence or are worried about the stigma associated with emotional sickness. When Jesus “saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36). What is your church doing to truly see the growing numbers of people with mental health struggles so you can respond with Christlike compassion?

Relationships

Providing a beautiful web of community constructed of genuine, healthy spiritual friendships is one of the most important and impactful things the church must do. We have seen the horrible effects of isolation. Meaningful relationships bring healing strength and light. Healthy groups become the place where loads are lifted and perspective is regained through “encouraging one another” (Hebrews 10:25). Relationships are crucial, allowing us to “carry each other’s burdens, and in this way . . . fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2).

Relationships are particularly vital for young people. So many have weak levels of connection, which increases the likelihood of poor mental health and the abuse of drugs and alcohol. Teens today spend more than five hours every day on social media, Derek Thompson writes in The Atlantic. That “social” habit is displacing a lot of other beneficial activities . . . like hanging out with friends and going to youth group. Is it any surprise loneliness spiked during the pandemic? This social isolation is a leading contributor to kids feeling sad, anxious, and depressed.

This is no time for surface-level relationships in the church. More than ever, the church needs to provide a safe harbor of listening ears and spiritual connection among supportive friends who serve as emotional health first responders. Additional training in helping people and improving listening skills will make an even greater difference.

Resources

In addition to core ministries like worship, preaching, teaching, fellowship, and service, there are additional resources churches provide that make a tremendous impact in addressing emotional health issues. Every church can provide restorative programs or connect with those that do. When we are involved in prison ministry, recovery ministry, ministry to the homeless, combatting human trafficking, disaster response, and many others, we are already engaged in mental health ministry—even if we don’t realize it. These resources release captives from oppression.

The student ministry team at our church recently recorded a panel discussion about suicide, depression, and mental health with local Christian counselors and youth pastors. They created an incredibly valuable resource for parents and students. What resources could your church draw upon to give tools to parents and guidance to strugglers? Address suicide, stress, and grief from the pulpit. Share resources offering help. The ministry of reconciliation sometimes means connecting people to resources that can bring healing for life’s hurts.

Referral

Sometimes additional help is needed that goes beyond the relationships and resources in a church body. When trying to help with serious emotional health issues, it’s wise and responsible for church leaders to refer these individuals to competent professional Christian counselors. Counselors and talk therapy are not a replacement for God, prayer, faith, or the church. But just as God works through surgeons and medical doctors to bring healing to our physical bodies, God can work through counselors to bring healing to our minds and spirits.

It’s time to destigmatize counseling and therapy. It’s time to acknowledge that anxiety and mental health challenges are not signs a person lacks faith, any more than diabetes or the flu are signs a person lacks faith. It’s time to stop suggesting that good Christians should ignore their pain and to stop implying medicine is an embarrassing necessity for lesser Christians who can’t manage their problems through faith and prayer. It’s time to stop saying we should just get over it, pray it away, stop being so inward-focused, and get on with life. Such poor advice, regardless how well-meaning people think it is, only piles additional burdens upon those already crushed under emotional struggle.

God made us complex beings. A skillful counselor can bring hope through the work of the Holy Spirit to help people untangle emotions, heal from grief, overcome hurtful memories, and process wounds. This kind of healing can free people to experience the peace of Christ and serve with greater gusto.

Real Hope

The gospel offers this ultimate gift to sufferers: hope. Following Jesus doesn’t mean we won’t have struggles, sorrows, pain, or mental health challenges. Jesus sweat drops of blood during his anguish in the garden. But his confidence in the joy before him enabled him to endure the cross and its shame. That same hope is also our own key to coping with life.

Preachers must preach Christ, the hope of glory (Colossians 1:27)! Every week our auditoriums are filled with people who are hurting. People need to know their present sufferings are not worth comparing to the future glory (Romans 8:18). People need hope not just for eternity, but for today.

Dante’s Inferno pictures Hell as a black cave with a sign overhead: “Abandon hope all ye who enter here.” Hope is hemorrhaging all around us. People are languishing. But Jesus provides hope that transcends our circumstances. A hope that trusts God is faithful and working, even when we can’t see or feel him. It’s a hope so solid we can persevere through any trial the world can throw at us.

We do have a problem.

But we also have hope in Christ. It’s time to peddle that hope like never before.

Ben Cachiaras serves as lead minister with Mountain Christian Church, Joppa, Maryland.

Ben Cachiaras

Ben Cachiaras serves as lead pastor at Mountain Christian Church in Joppa, Maryland.

1 Comment

  1. Kevin B White

    Thanks Ben! Excellent as always! Appreciate your wisdom and the compelling way that you express your insights! Blessings, my friend!

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