Mental Health Support: 5 Things Ministers Should Not Do, and 10 Things They Can Do
Glennon Doyle Melton, of Momastery, recently wrote an article called “If You Wouldn’t go to Your Minister for a Mammogram, Don’t go for Depression.” Her main point was that ministers are not doctors. Most ministers are not trained mental health professionals, and you want to go to a mental health professional for mental health treatment. She is saddened by the number of ministers who give poor advice, such as to go off medication and pray for God to take away your illness for you.
I am a minister of a very liberal faith, Unitarian Universalism, where one of the six sources that inform our faith is “Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit.” You would think maybe we as a liberal faith are doing a better job at mental health care with our parishioners, but many of us are not. In fact, our focus on reason and science and the power of individualism has led many in our faith to believe that you can think your way out of mental illness, which is not too much different than telling people you can pray your way out. (Prayer and behavioral therapy that look at thoughts, feelings, and actions are parts of treatment for mental health, but should be done by a mental health professional as part of a much larger treatment plan. You can't just change your thinking without proper treatment.) Whereas some faiths tell people they don’t need medicine, I have been told by ministers that I have to take medicine for my illness and to not take medication is morally wrong.
The fact is, unless you are going to a minister who is also a mental health professional, you should not be getting treatment for your mental illness from a minister.
Below are some guidlenes minisers can use to be more mindfull of how we support people with mental illness, but do not provide treatment for them.
Ministers probably should not (unless they are a licensed therapist or psychologist):
Tell you to take or not take medication prescribed by a doctor.
Tell you to not follow your doctors treatment plan- whatever that may be.
Diagnose you to your face or behind your back- I know a minister who mistook Parkinson’s disease for alcoholism.
Tell you mental illness is either not real or it is all in your head. (Or tell you it is caused by evil spirits.)
Create a treatment plan for you.
Ministers, who truly understand mental illness, probably can:
Provide pastoral care and support.
Help find resources for a doctor prescribed treatment plan. For example, many plans include mindfulness practices, which ministers can help with.
Discuss with you how your illness fits into or challenges your spiritual beliefs.
If part of your illness is triggered by past religious trauma, ministers can help discuss and reframe that into a more healthy set of religious beliefs.
Ask a mental health agency to run a support group for people with mental illness or a group for family members of people with mental illness, at the church.
With your permission, help to find a care group for you from church that might be able to make meals or help with babysitting kids when you are not able to function.
Run a journaling group or other group that focuses on creativity as a means to calm the mind.
Help create safe spaces in our churches for people who’s behavior may be challenging at times, but also give us healthy boundaries as to what helps us create a healthy community.
Preach or invite guest preachers to talk about mental illness from the pulpit so we can increase awareness and decrease stigma.
Share their own stories. Some ministers do not like this idea, but those who can share a bit of their own story of mental health challenges help break down barriers and show that mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of.
I am a minster and people ask me for advice about mental illness all the time. I can share my story, I can talk about a lot of the research about mental illness and the non-pharmacological body, mind, and spirit lifestyle changes that create a healthy foundation, and I can provide emotional support. I must be clear though that I am not a doctor. If I talk to someone about the research around the use of exercise in treatment of ADHD or bipolar disorder, it needs to be clear that it is information only and they should take any ideas they have to their doctor.
It is a mistake to think that no minister has enough knowledge to be of help to a person with mental illness. Some of us have lived it and studied it extensively. Some of us do have training in certain areas of mental health, like my work and training in dementia care.
Actually, it would be a huge loss of resources and support if we say ministers can not help people with mental illness at all.
Basically, we all need to understand the disclaimer: the information provided to you by your minister is in no way intended to be personal medical advice. Please ask your physician(s) about any changes you wish to make in your health care plan- every body and mind is different and needs to be treated individually by a physician. Honestly, this is the same disclaimer you will read in any book or blog about mental illness, even ones written by a trained and licensed psychologist, because NO ONE but your doctor should be creating a treatment plan for you.
P.S.: For my post a few years ago, responding to a similar blog post by Glennon, please see: "Mental Health Discussions: What Can a Minister Do?"