As we enter church on Sunday morning, the call to worship or song of gathering often invites us to bring all that we are. Yet for some, the complications of our lives may seem too big to bring to church and to explain to the community.
For children living with mental health problems and their families, it may seem easier to leave the issue of mental health at the door:.
- Easier because mental health conditions are invisible; it is not easy at first glance to identify a person who struggles with mental health difficulties.
- Easier because matters related to mental health are difficult to explain; mental health problems are often kept secret due to shame and misunderstanding from others.
- Easier because people are afraid of judgment; will church members suggest that they need to just pray harder or that the parents are not doing a good enough job with their children?
- Easier because families sometimes want to try for one hour a week where everyone gets to think and pretend they are “normal.
The high prevalence of mental health problems among children and adolescents suggests that these experiences are common in nearly every congregation. Estimates project that about 20% of children and teens suffer from mental health problems at any given time (National Institutes of Health). With one in five children affected, your congregation likely has its share.
We need to find ways to talk about mental health issues and open up a conversation with parents in our congregations so that we as the church can be part of reducing the crushing negative stigma that accompanies mental illness. When we suggest that struggles in children and families come from lack of faith or not allowing God to change us, we alienate these already suffering families and make them feel like their spiritual journey is one of constant failure. Recognizing and naming mental health issues allows for the in-breaking of the kingdom of God. We can affirm that those who struggle are beloved of God. Public acknowledgment of the pain allows the faith community to take seriously the brokenness and struggles that mental health issues bring into the life of the family and to provide supportive caring and God’s love and compassion.
So what is the church to do?
Here are some suggestions:
Work together to create environments that support success. Church can be a place to increase social belonging and engagement in children and adolescents. In church settings, groups of children or youth are often smaller than school groups, which makes it easier for children to engage, to know others and to be known by them. Sunday school teachers or other involved adults who see a child struggle can talk with the Sunday school superintendent or pastor responsible for Christian formation. Together you can consider what additional supports are needed in that setting to minimize disruption and allow the child to participate fully.
Share about mental illness during children’s time. Tell stories of difference and connection. Speak about struggles with fear, anxiety, sadness and depression. Model an attitude that these issues are okay to talk about openly in your congregation.
Develop a model of “relational respite” for families of children that are struggling with mental health problems. Social isolation can impact the entire family. Respite can be offered by asking another couple, family or individual to provide extra support for various members of the family, including, but not exclusively, the child struggling with mental health problems. Such support often needs to begin as a formal system of care. As relationships grow social capital and informal supports may develop naturally.
Provide extra support to help connect families with resources in the wider community. This may mean:
- Providing a meal or transportation for the family on the evening that a child or family has therapy or a support group
- Referring a family to a community mental health center
- Walking alongside a family as they seek help from the child’s school and advocate for an individualized education plan (IEP)
- Listening carefully to the families stress points and asking what assistance is needed most.
During Jesus’ ministry he spent a lot of time with those who were considered on the margins of society. Jesus named their struggles and welcomed all people to be a part of his kingdom and work on earth. We too can extend the care of love of Jesus to all people.
Lora Nafziger is a member of the pastoral team at Assembly Mennonite Church, Goshen, IN, and a Field Associate for Anabaptist Disabilities Network.
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