October 10th is World Mental Health Day. This year’s theme is “Make mental health and well-being for all a global priority”. Hence, this is an opportune time to think about broaching mental health conversations in your church.
In church, we can be uncomfortable with disclosures about mental health problems, and sometimes inadvertently make unhealthy assumptions that are counter-productive. There is, however, sound scriptural grounds to believe God cares about our souls – the seat of our emotions, will and intellect, as much as our spirits and bodies. 3 John 2 alludes to God’s interest in our whole being: “I pray that you may enjoy good health and that all may go well with you, just as you are progressing spiritually.”
The World Health Organisation (WHO) states that one person out of every eight in the world is living with a mental health condition. If the church population is representative of our community, then chances are that mental health conditions are common. Some figures suggest that half of these conditions are present by the time a person reaches 15 years of age, and three-quarters by their mid-twenties.
More recently, an Office of Health Improvement and Disparities survey revealed that nearly half (49%) of adults and over half (52%) of Black adults in England said the COVID-19 pandemic had a negative impact on their mental well-being. This is why it is so important for churches, led by church leaders, to open dialogue about emotional health.
Talk about mental health from the pulpit
On a personal note, as a psychiatrist who has the privilege of being a youth pastor with a social network of Christian young adults and their parents, I know our young adults are keen to discuss mental health. There are unresolved issues of identity, self-esteem, loneliness, sexuality, pornography, social media influence, depression and anxiety problems that they wish were openly addressed from the pulpit.
As I speak to Christian young adults within and outside of the church, “How and where does my Christian faith feature in my emotional health in the 21st century?” is a common theme on the mind of our millennials and Gen Z (people born between 1997 and 2012).
So, how might we respond? Christian young adults are looking for a collaborative approach from church leadership. They want to be heard and involved in formulating strategies and solutions to tackling this issue. As a church leader, a good starting point might be to create a focus group for the young adults in your congregation and to discuss with them some of the challenges they are facing.
The pivotal point in our church came one Sunday when the young adults decided to use their dedicated quarterly session to speak about mental health. Recognition of the need by leadership led to another session by the young adults culminating in a formal church strategy to address mental health difficulties. Involving in-house mental health professionals is always beneficial. As a result of these conversations, we were committed and successful in ensuring that our entire volunteer team and leadership team all received safeguarding training and attended a full day of training dedicated to mental health awareness, delivered by myself and a couple of psychiatrist colleagues.
Incorporating personal experiences of mental health challenges and or mental health self-care strategies in sermons can be a powerful way to normalise and remove the stigma. On occasions, I have shared freely from the pulpit my journey of overcoming imposter syndrome. I used a proven mental health process, along with scripturally sound and evidence-based thinking strategies to challenge toxic thinking in supporting my own mental health.
Church leaders need to be better informed. Broaching the tricky issues of mental health is best achieved when leaders are well-equipped with a deeper understanding of the different types of mental health issues they may encounter in their congregation. The Royal College of Psychiatrists (rcpsych.ac.uk) and Mental Health Foundation (mentalhealthfoundation.org.uk) are credible information sources.
A supportive and non-judgemental approach that does not dismiss people with mental illness as sinful or weak-willed is key. Encouraging listeners that obtaining professional help is not contrary to faith can be liberating. Alluding to Bible characters such as David and Elijah, who clearly demonstrated mental health distress, can be a helpful means of normalising the dialogue.
God really does care about our well-being and we need to ensure that our congregants, who are under increasing pressure in this area, do not avoid the conversation. If there is somewhere that these conversations can be held with empathy and compassion, in the solution-focused style that it requires, then the church is perfectly placed to do so.
Tripart Care will be hosting another free Zoom event on 27th October, 7-8:30 pm GMT, to further explore mental well-being in church settings. Registration is free at https://tripartcarehub.eventbrite.co.uk or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org
By Dr T. Ayodele Ajayi
Dr T Ajayi is on the pastoral team of one of the New Covenant Churches in London, with responsibility for the youth church. He is the author of Footprints of Giants – an inspirational book in the Christian personal development genre.
He is a trained mentor and coach, and Founder and Executive Lead of Mentor Into Medicine – a mentoring organisation that empowers school and college students from socially and ethnically disadvantaged backgrounds; to achieve their dreams of studying medicine. Dr Ajayi is the Convener of the Mentor Into Medicine workshops.
He is happily married to Dupe, and they have two teenage daughters.