Week 9 – Ministering to People with Mental Illness and their Families

Mental Health Information for Ministers

Used with permission: Rev. Barbara F. Meyers, 2022.

The Minister’s Role

The minister’s role is to give important and often ignored spiritual support to a person with a mental disorder. The minister, as adjunct to professional mental health care, can impart:

  • A calm reassuring presence
  • Knowledge that the person is loved and accepted
  • Hope – which is necessary for the beginning of recovery
  • Visits when in the psychiatric ward, just as you would visit any other hospitalized congregant
  • Encouragement to continue the road to recovery, especially when a person has had previous failures, maybe even harmful failures
  • Help in addressing any spiritual dimension of the person’s illness
  • Use of spiritual practices consistent with the person’s beliefs that you think might be helpful and comforting. For example: prayer, meditation, communion, and other rituals.
  • Confrontation when needed – when the person is in denial or is disruptive to church life
  • A safe place in a church that does not tolerate cruelty, exclusion, or jokes at their expense.
  • Sermons, classes, or literature to educate the congregation and/or lay pastoral care workers about mental illness
  • Referrals to appropriate professional treatment, including handling of psychiatric emergencies. A rule of thumb: if a person needs more than 3 counselling sessions, a referral should be given (Page 3).

Listening and Giving Advice

As Rev. Doug Kraft explains1, “There is a difference between supportive listening versus advice. Both can be helpful or irritating depending on what the person wants or needs. If he or she just wants support and you try to give advice, the advice sounds unsupportive (“If you just did what I said you wouldn’t feel so bad” kind of diminishes the feelings). On the other hand, if you give purely active listening to someone who wants some advice, it can be maddening (“Ah, I hear you would like someone to help you. That must be frustrating.”).” Sometimes the person wants advice and needs to be encouraged to find his or her own solutions. The art is knowing what to do and when (Page 3).

Resources for Religion / Spirituality and Mental Illness

The symptoms of some mental disorders can resemble experiences involved in spiritual awakening. These experiences have helped shape the religious landscape throughout human history; the prophets and patriarchs of most religious traditions saw visions and heard voices, and shaman in native cultures have these experiences as a central role in initiation and practice. When helpful to the person and the church, they are experiences of the holy and need to be respected and honoured (Page 27).

Suggestions for the Minister

To try and distinguish between mental health issues and spiritual awakening, ask yourself:

  • Does the person describe the experience as mystical, as near death, as a revelation of a universal religious truth, as finding who he or she really is?
  • Does the person have a curiosity about the experience and want to explore it?

If the person reports that he or she believes there is a religious or spiritual dimension to the illness, try and determine the religious meaning that the person attributes this experience. If the experience it is a negative one, you may want to empathize and if possible, suggest another meaning that is more positive (Page 27).

Relationship of Religion and Mental Health – Two Sets of Views

There have been different views of the way that religion and mental health relate to one another. Reasons given by those making the argument that religion is generally beneficial to mental health are that religion:

  1. reduces existential anxiety by offering a structure in a chaotic world
  2. offers a sense of hope, meaning, and purpose, and thus emotional well-being
  3. provides reassuring fatalism enabling one to deal better with pain
  4. affords solutions to many kinds of emotional and situational conflicts
  5. offers afterlife beliefs, helping one to deal with one’s own mortality
  6. gives a sense of power through association with an omnipotent force
  7. establishes moral guidelines to serve self and others
  8. promotes social cohesion
  9. offers a social identity and a place to belong
  10. provides a foundation for cathartic collectively enacted ritual

Reasons given by those who feel that religion doesn’t help, and may harm mental health are that religion has the potential to:

  1. generate unhealthy levels of guilt
  2. promote self-denigration and low self-esteem by devaluing human nature
  3. establish a foundation for unhealthy repression of anger
  4. create anxiety and fear by beliefs in punishment in hell for ‘evil’ ways
  5. impede self-direction and a sense of internal control
  6. foster dependency and conformity with an over-reliance on external forces
  7. inhibit expression of sexual feelings
  8. encourage black and white views of the world: all are ‘saints’ or ‘sinners’
  9. instil ill-founded paranoia concerning evil forces threatening one’s integrity
  10. interfere with rational and critical thought (Page 27).

If you feel that you can’t adequately serve the person’s spiritual needs, you can make a referral to a therapist who will respect the healing nature of the spiritual transformation process. You can create a referral list by consulting with your peers or with spiritual guides you know and respect (Page 28).

Dealing with Other Congregants

Because people with some of the more serious mental health difficulties can do things which can alarm, or disgust other members of the congregation, sometimes the minister needs to be able to cope with these reactions along with the reactions of the person with the mental disorder. Here are some suggestions:

  • Consider making this a teachable moment, when you can model how one can behave with another person who is behaving quite differently from “expected” behaviour. Have them see you talk to the person and accept the person as the precious human being that he or she is.
  • After such a situation has passed, speak with other congregants who might have witnessed it and explain your understanding of what has happened and how it is being resolved. If you think it would be helpful, enlist their support in working with the person in the future, as a person of inherent worth and dignity.
  • Identify other congregants who understand mental health situations and have them help you.
  • Consider offering a class on mental health at your congregation to educate members and perhaps to begin advocacy. The Caring Congregation Program is one such curriculum (Page 29).

When the Minister Needs Help – Dealing with Self

A minister, like any other human being, operates his or her life on the continuum between mental health and mental disorder. Being a minister can be a stressful job and generally speaking, ministers are prone to overwork. Because of these stresses, a time might come when you as a minister feel that you may need professional mental health assistance. This is a time when you can practice good self-care, just as you are advising your parishioners to do. In particular:

  • If you think you need help, be evaluated by a mental health professional, and follow treatment recommendations.
  • Guard against burnout by learning to monitor yourself. Involve your loved ones and trusted colleagues in this assessment and listen to them when they say that you might be overdoing it and need a rest.
  • Consider ongoing spiritual direction or therapy to stay on top of the issues that might be important in your functioning as a minister.
  • If you find yourself unable to cope with a member of your congregation who has mental health problems, ask for help from a colleague or from a trusted mental health professional.
  • If you receive professional mental health services, at some point you might want to consider “coming out” and telling your parishioners that you have gotten this care and that it has helped you. In my experience, such news as this is often very helpful and healing for the congregation, and people feel safe to talk about their issues when a respected person is open. This, however, is clearly a highly personal decision that you must make in your own unique situation (Page 29).

Reference: Rev. Barbara F. Meyers. (2014). Mental Health Information for Ministers. Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation, Fremont, CA. Pages 3 – 29.