"Talking About Mental Illness" graphic courtesy of LifeWay Christian Resources.

Mental illness rarely addressed by churches

(RNS) Protestant clergy rarely preach about mental illness to their congregations and only one-quarter of congregations have a plan in place to assist families of the mentally ill, a new LifeWay Research survey found.

"Talking About Mental Illness" graphic courtesy of LifeWay Christian Resources.

"Talking About Mental Illness" graphic courtesy of LifeWay Christian Resources.

 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

The findings, in a nation where one in four Americans have suffered with mental illness, demonstrate a need for greater communication, said Ed Stetzer, executive director of the evangelical research firm, a ministry of LifeWay Christian Resources, which is an agency of the Southern Baptist Convention.

When it comes to mental illness, researchers found:

  • 66 percent mention it rarely, once a year or never
  • 26 percent speak about it several times a year
  • 4 percent mention it about once a month
  • 3 percent talk about it several times a month.

“When we look at what we know statistically -- the prevalence of mental illness and the lack of preaching on the subject -- I think that’s a disconnect,” said Stetzer.

The survey taken among evangelical and mainline churches was funded by Colorado-based Focus on the Family and an anonymous donor whose family member suffered from schizophrenia. It included the perspectives of pastors, churchgoers who have suffered from mental illness -- depression, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia -- and family members of the mentally ill.

"Helping with Mental Illness" graphic courtesy of LifeWay Christian Resources.

"Helping with Mental Illness" graphic courtesy of LifeWay Christian Resources.

 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Author Kay Warren commended the survey’s findings and said she and her husband, megachurch pastor Rick Warren, have been vocal about the “terrible scourge.” Their 27-year-old son, Matthew, suffered from mental illness and killed himself last year.

She urged church leaders to not only preach about it but allow those struggling with mental illness to give testimonies to their congregations.

“I would encourage any pastor or church leader, yes preach a message, but put in front of your people those who are living with mental illness so they can share their stories and become human in that process,” she said in a conference call Monday (Sept. 22) about the survey.

In contrast to the findings about the relative scant attention the pastors give to the subject, almost seven in 10 mentally ill people said churches should help families discover local resources for support.

While 68 percent of pastors said their church maintains a list of local mental health resources for church members, just 28 percent of families are aware of such resources.

Jared Pingleton, director of counseling services at Focus on the Family, said pastors are often turned to for help but they may not have had any seminary or Bible school training to help them meet parishioners' mental health needs.

The survey found that less than half of pastors -- 41 percent -- said they had taken seminary courses on caring for the mentally ill.

Daniel Aleshire, executive director of the Association of Theological Schools, said about 35 of his association’s 270 member schools offer master’s degrees in counseling or in marriage and family therapy. A recent study by Baylor University scholars found that of 70 seminaries with Master of Divinity programs, a majority offer elective counseling courses but few students take them.

Despite LifeWay’s finding overall reticence, almost a quarter of pastors surveyed -- 23 percent -- said they had personally struggled with mental illness.

“I think it helps us to understand why some pastors have a sense of empathy, not just sympathy,” said Stetzer. “It surprised me in the sense that people were very forthright about it.”

LifeWay found that slightly more than a quarter of pastors -- 27 percent -- said their church has a plan for supporting families with a mentally ill member.

Focus on the Family has developed resources for pastors based on the research, including “practical tools and tips about how to make a referral to a trusted Christian colleague,” said Pingleton, a minister and clinical psychologist who was on the conference call with Kay Warren.

He said shared worldviews are “vital” in the referral process “so that the pastor knows that they can refer a member of their flock, one of their sheep, to someone who will not, as it were, fleece them.”

But Kay Warren disagreed.

“If I’m going to get my heart worked on, I don’t really care if the cardiac surgeon is a believer or not,” she said. “I want the best.”

The LifeWay survey did not specifically address the issue of the faith of mental health professionals.

The survey results are based on a May 7-31 survey of 1,000 Protestant pastors and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points. Smaller random samples of mentally ill and family members were drawn from a pre-screened national panel.



  1. 1. It is not the purpose of sermons to address topical questions or to plump for the vocational or ideological interests of the mental health trade.

    2. “Depression” is not an illness and making use of the metaphor confounds more than it enlightens.

    3. No, we do not need TMI sessions in front of the congregation from those who’ve gone manic phases or had schizophreniform breakdowns.

  2. It’s disgusting attitudes like that lead so many people like Robin Williams to keep their depression hidden from the world and you’re a sicko for posting this ignorance.

  3. Please let us know your congregation so that we can alert them NOT to seek help from you or anyone else within the congregation for that matter. Your lack compassion is astounding and entirely cold-hearted and I wouldn’t be surprised if you helped people jump off bridges (lessens the population, you know, making room for the exceptionally righteous).

  4. If you are suffering from depression, I recommend the Destroy Depression System.
    Written by a former sufferer of depression, it teaches a simple 7-step process to eliminate depression from your life.

  5. It’s absolutely the job of the church to be the natural go-to for people in mental / emotional distress. Regardless of how the church chooses to approach this – be it open discussions or making available one one one counselors to discuss problems with, this is something that folks should feel comfortable going to their church about.

  6. Re: “2. ‘Depression’ is not an illness and making use of the metaphor confounds more than it enlightens.”

    Oh yes it is “an illness.” Your saying it’s not has no bearing on that fact. You may as well have claimed that water isn’t wet or that the sky is red.

  7. Having known some folks with mental illness, and what they’ve had to go through while dealing with their diseases, what I’ve seen suggests churches are less concerned with truly helping the mentally ill, than with using their illnesses as “hooks” to lure them in. “We have the answer for what ails you,” a lot of them promise, “and that’s our God. Come in and he’ll make everything better.”

    The promise of making things better is alluring, but it’s fraught with disappointment (when, inevitably, it fails to work). At that point the churchgoers will dig in with, “Well, you just have to have more faith” or “You just need to try harder” or whatever lame thing they trot out. In other words, they either imply, or say outright, that it’s the mentally ill person’s own fault that the church’s promised solution doesn’t work; they take no responsibility for that failure themselves and won’t acknowledge that, perhaps, their God isn’t the solution to the person’s problem. They heap guilt trips on the very sorts of people who don’t need them and can least handle them.

    It’s poor ethics to find vulnerable people and use their vulnerabilities as a way of proselytizing to them. It’s even worse to work at keeping them vulnerable in order to ensure they won’t want to leave.

    If you’re mentally ill and someone presents you with a religious remedy, I advise you to RUN, not walk, away and never speak with that person again. They literally cannot have your welfare in mind. You’re better off staying as far away as possible. I say this even in cases where you’re sure the person means well. S/he just might have the best intentions … but mythology and metaphysics are no solution for real-world medical issues, and aren’t worth your time or attention.

  8. Preaching about mental illness is exactly what all pastors, ministers, priests, rabbis and other clergy do, every week. But they don’t CALL it “mental illness”, and they should NEVER start doing so! Religious people are in the business of the spirit. They very term “mental illness” is an attempt to reduce the spirit to brain chemicals which might someday be fine-tuned and controlled with no reference to anything but the body, and no connection or responsibility whatsoever to God.

    Whatever medical care works for a person, it will always be a stopgap measure, extremely temporary. Spiritual gain, connection to God, is forever. Don’t think they are the same thing. Don’t fall for the appeal to “preach mental illness”.

  9. I’m so glad the church is becoming more aware of mental illness, and desiring to learn the tools to properly help those suffering. It’s imperative that the church acknowledges that it is not a “lack of faith” to study how to sew up a wound (use sterile tools, advanced techniques for the least amount of scarring, etc.). We can help the process of leading others to healing if we have a grasp and understanding of what kind of wound it is, and how best to treat it. And sometimes, that means referring them to someone else with more understanding on treating those specific wounds.
    God has so much wisdom in His word about healing (physical, mental and spiritual). However, we are not God, and we are not all-knowing. We are trying to put a puzzle together one piece at a time, in our lack of omniscience. And, it is always helpful to have knowledgeable counsel to guide us…a counselor who has studied the best strategies to complete the puzzle we are currently working on, and has seen the puzzle completed before.
    How much greater would it be if that counselor/doctor is sitting under the greatest counsel of all time…under the counsel of a God who knows ALL things, such as every thought in the heart of man?

    Is it better to be taught by those who have developed the greatest strategies for completing the puzzle….OR, is it better to be taught by the One who created the puzzle itself? I believe the answer is both.

  10. “Regardless of how the church chooses to approach this”

    No! Not regardless ‘of how the church chooses to approach this’.

    If the church fails to send someone for professional help from a psychologist or mental counselor they should be held partly responsible for any suicide attempt thereafter. No illness should be in the hands of a priest or a parish – it has never worked.

  11. @S. Randolph Kretchmar,

    “Preaching about mental illness is exactly what all pastors, ministers, priests, rabbis and other clergy do, every week.”

    Nonsense. You don’t understand what mental illness is.
    Furthermore, pastors, preachers etc are likely to only ENCOURAGE mental illness! Religion encourages delusional and magical thinking – it is needlessly harmful.

    “Later we’ll go to a psychologist
    but first we have to go to church where Jesus is going to come back to life and turn into a cracker for your personal benefit.”

    Madness in, madness out!

  12. Sin, faith, and other religious concepts are about as useful in addressing mental illness as they are in addressing a broken leg. When the mind is overwhelmed, normal communication is impossible. I have dealt with mental illness my entire life. My late mother went to the state mental hospital for the first time when I was age five. In my law practice, I have represented the mentally ill at commitment hearings hundreds of times, over a span of about twenty years. I was glad to counsel families, because I had been through the experience myself. Nothing is more trying than to have a family member that inexplicably disappears, gets arrested, attempts suicide, steals and lies, involves everybody in their behavior, yet can neither help nor explain themselves. At least drug addicts have some remedy, the mentally ill had none, until recently. A generation or two ago, only shock treatment or massive sedation were available. The “talking cure” has now been abandoned as effective treatment of several important groups of serious cases. Today treatment is all about drugs. Talking is useful only after the drugs take effect and the patient has to deal with the changes in perception. All this is so new that nobody knows what effect these medications may have in the “long run”.
    Ministers and Churches can be helpful to their members, but only if they are willing to be trained. The untutored are likely do more harm than good. Above all do not assign blame to the ill person or to the family members. Experts have only limited success. Others must accept that they cannot have prevented the illness, nor can they cure it.

  13. Samuel,

    It is always important to hear from those who have grown up with this type of struggle. Thank you for sharing. There is no ‘one’ solution, and religious clergy are not usually equipped to deal with this. A concerned congregation that knows to be aware, informed, nonjudgemental and available when needed is a better position in assisting, but the bigger picture is a village of willing parties engaging where needed. Just being aware and on the lookout is helpful (even with elderly suffering dementia). I am not for drugs in most situations, but would not rule out use in some cases, or for short term. Each situation is very complex. But I must ask, what is your experience with using artistic means such as writing (essays, poetry …), painting and drawing … for RELEASE, and for gaining a better understanding of the underlying concerns? I am artist/writer in Spirrealism, a movement in the Spirit Arts that allows for expression and release of voice. My own experiences in religion brought me, and my Spirrealism partner, Alfred Eaker, to work together in this movement. I was not struggling with “mental illness” but was seeing a lot of “malpractice” in the effort of healing.


  14. @Samuel Johnston,

    “Above all do not assign blame to the ill person or to the family members.”

    One of the fundamental evils of all religion
    is the preachment that bad illnesses are always the result of ‘sins’.
    The mentally ill are afflicted anew in multiple ways by this diabolical preachment.
    Depression and suicidal thoughts are not the result of ‘sin’ – they are the serious manifestations of a mental illness which needs professional treatment.

    Religion is the ignorant answer to life’s problems. It was born of ignorance.
    It promotes and encourages insanity in many ways.

    “Don’t be evil, come up to the altar and receive Jesus – he turned into a cracker for your personal benefit”

  15. Your comments really hurt those of us who have experienced mental health issues either personally or within our families. Ignorance and lack of knowledge is no excuse to defame those who have been diagnosed with a mental illness. Shame on you for your judgment and insensitivity.

  16. Art Deco, ignorance is bliss, except the mentally ill, if they are being controlled with doctor’s care and medicine is a disease of the mind. We have it all our lives and some of us are managing, but as I am aging, I am seeing especially from my extended family, they are fed up helping by LISTENING. My feelings are, when people like you make opinions of disgust, you cause us to despare.

  17. I don’t believe that Scientologists are for antidepressants or therapy by psychologists or therapists; nor are they guided by God’s Word, the Bible, but by an imperfect human’s ideas by the name of L. Ron Hubbard. Tom Cruise has even confirmed this with his comments.

    I have a good friend I used to work with who associated with the Church of Scientology, and she lost everything she had due to their teachings; she ended up suing them and received an amount in settlement, which she not allowed to say.

    That is definitely a “money-making” business (auditing) which knows nothing about God, his marvelous personality and his grand purposes for mankind on earth.

  18. “Religion encourages delusional and magical thinking – it is needlessly harmful.” Atheist Max – I know I will not anything to convince you to think otherwise than what you have stated, but perhaps I can help others take a different approach. Religion, like any moral, ethical, or belief system is determined by its cultural and societal context. Let’s look at a particular religious system in particularities, and not generalizations.

  19. Here, here. Thank you for sharing. As a pastor and person who lives with a mental health condition you are a beacon of light for us all.

  20. @MAG,

    Sorry. This is not about details. It is about honesty.

    God either exists or he doesn’t.
    If you claim God exists, fine – be ready to back it up with some evidence
    otherwise you are spreading a false claim around. The price of doing that is very high. James Foley’s needless execution at the direction of Allah is such an example.

    You have a right to believe anything you want to believe in America. Have fun!
    But you should expect to be challenged if you make assertions, claims and statements as if they are “facts.”

    Does God exist? I don’t know. I’m agnostic on that question.
    Do I see a reason to believe? Absolutely not – so I’m Atheist.

    “Execute them in front of me” – JESUS (Luke 19:27)

    In the meantime,
    as we try to sort out what is true and false and try to figure out if God exists – I recommend we abandon all religious practices. They are too dangerous to play with.

  21. I’m old and slow, so forgive me for commenting late. Unfortunately too many consider depression a sin. A person who has suffered for 70 years and didn’t get diagnosed until a few years ago. Although I did reasonably well in my professional life, and depression did affect it, but not to the degree it happened in my personal life. It cost me a wife and family, and nearly a second one. Fortunately the second one recognized the symptoms, something my doctors had overlooked. One GP recognized it, perhaps tipped off by my wife, and things changed dramatically. It ultimately required hospitalization, but not a psychiatric institution.
    I’m a preacher’s kid and was brought up thinking depression cold be cured by faith and prayer. Unfortunately a depressed person may not know they are depressed, no matter how severe. And I never lost my faith, possibly because I didn’t know I was depressed.
    Among those with in therapy was a young preacher’s wife, who didn’t believe in depression, thus exacerbating the situation to the point she attempted suicide. The gun would not go off, even though loaded and should have. The follow-up investigation resulted her commitment to a psychiatric hospital, and then to the group I was in, the only reason her husband allowed it. When families were brought into a session with the group, he showed obvious disdain for the process and had strong objections to her need for treatment or his part in it.
    I don’t know what happened to her after her discharged, but I don’t think her life improved.
    In my church I know I helped at least one person who felt shame after spending time in a hospital for depression, and didn’t return to church for a while. My telling her about my hospitalization, at my pastor’s request, helped her to attend again, or so she says.
    You bet the church should and can help, but those of us who are surviving it with treatment in therapy and medications need to let others know, especially the pastor, that we may be able to help. And the more of us that open up on this can help the church. Yes, some do stigmatize, but so what!


Leave a Comment