During a Tuesday afternoon workshop at the Annual Meeting of Texas Baptists, co-founders of the Grace Alliance described the ways in which churches can better prepare themselves to both recognize the signs of mental illness and better minister to individuals and families suffering from mental illness.
Based in Waco, the Grace Alliance exists to be a bridge between the world of professional mental health care and the church, creating supports systems and educational opportunities for families and communities of faith.
According to Matt Stanford, co-founder and professor of psychology, neuroscience and biomedicine at Baylor University, some 61.5 million Americans, around 13.6% of the population, suffer from some form of serious mental illness. Unfortunately, many churches are unprepared to handle individuals with these disorders and miss opportunities for significant ministry.
"The church has a foundational role in mental health recovery," stated Stanford. "The problem is not many churches realize that, and the churches, which do realize that feel ill-equipped to help people with mental health problems."
Yet, the church stands as one of the first lines of support for individuals with mental health issues. As Stanford explained, people in psychological distress will often first approach clergy, making pastors a type of "gate keeper" for mental health.
Grace Alliance seeks to help clergy better understand their role as gate keepers, which involves not only facilitating access to professionals who can diagnose and treat problems, but also ensuring individuals feel restored and fully accepted in the church.
"We need to treat these people the same way we treat anyone who is suffering," Stanford stated. "As a people of God, we are supposed to relieve suffering where we can, we are to reveal Christ, and we are to restore lives by walking along with them as their lives are restored through a relationship with God and being that supportive community."
To accomplish this task, co-founder Jay Padilla suggests the church focus on three pillars of mental health recovery support. First, the church can function as a pillar of education and training, seeking to help recognize and respond to mental issues, as well as partnering with professionals through referrals and programs to help individuals through the recovery process.
Second, the church needs to be a pillar of community collaboration and transformation providing both a support system for those with mental health issues, as well as helps to advocate proper care for these individuals.
Third, the church can serve as a pillar of restorative support, something the church often fails to accomplish. Since mental health issues can be difficult to navigate, many churches choose to ignore or dismiss problems rather than taking the time to develop a holistic approach to support both the individual and the family and provide them with a safe environment to nurture and grow along the journey.