How well do our pastors cope with church members who are dealing with mental health challenges?
A survey of 1,031 United Methodist pastors in Indiana and Virginia was done in 2000. We know the study is not recent, but very few studies like this exist.
This study from Indiana University East and Ball State University showed that United Methodist pastors agree the church “should become more involved in education about mental illness and families affected by the disease, but few deal with the mentally ill on a regular basis.”
Joan LaFuze, the medical physiologist and professor at IU East who initiated the survey was not surprised by the results. She and her husband are life-long Methodists and they have a son who was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1981. A year later their daughter diagnosed with panic disorder.
“I can’t describe what happens when you enter the world of mental illness,” LaFuze told United Methodist News Service in a telephone interview. “It was like going to a foreign country.”
She says that her family found the church “loving and supportive” but “they did not find it helpful in trying to deal with the crisis that mental illness caused in their family.”
She hopes the study “is a beginning in looking at the role of pastors and the role of the church in meeting the needs” of families facing mental illness.
Some of the things the survey found include:
- Most pastors reported knowing five or fewer families, on average, with mental illness in their congregations.
- About 90 percent rejected attitudes of hopelessness or blame regarding mental illness and agreed the church should sponsor more programs that educate pastors and support families.
- Less than a third worked in churches that offered outreach services for the mentally ill
- Only 10 percent had counseled a mentally ill person on a weekly basis.
Perhaps surprisingly, 43 percent of the pastors surveyed said an immediate family member suffered from some sort of mental illness.
The study reported on the General Board of Global Ministries web site states:
LaFuze believes that pastors – as leaders of the congregation – and as many lay people as possible need to understand the nature of mental illness. While many people realize that mental illness has a biological component, she explained, they are not necessarily aware that the behaviors exhibited “are actually symptoms of an illness,” in the same way that a fever or cough is a symptom.
LaFuze suggested that seminary students should have some actual experiences interacting with families and people that are mentally ill and that a continuing education program could be developed for pastors.
- Who are People with Disabilities? from United Methodist Committee on Relief
- Appropriate Language in Discussing Mental Illness A helpful guide by Charlotte Hawkins-Shepard, Ph.D.
- Congregations Open the Door to People with Mental Illnesses by Mary Beth Coudal, December 15, 1999
- Faith Communities Care About Mental Illness by Mary Beth Coudal, GBGM, November 24, 1998
- Mental Illness and the Church, An Annotated Bibliography by Charlotte Hawkins-Shepard, Ph.D.
- National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI). Their phone number is 800-950-6264.
- National Mental Health Association (NMHA), another informational and advocacy group spreading tolerance and improving mental health services.