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Mental illness headlines stir pastors to help

NASHVILLE (BP) — Evangelical leaders are increasingly speaking out about mental health issues. Many have begun to open up about their own bouts with depression or a family member’s illness.

Last month, The New York Times ran a front page story about pastors breaking the longtime silence around mental illness. The Times story led with the account of Southern Baptist pastor Matt Brogli receiving an anonymous phone call from a suicidal man.

Brogli, pastor of Eagle Springs Baptist Church in Eagle Springs, N.C., was new to the pastorate and admittedly ill-prepared for the exchange. Fortunately, he was able to talk the man out of taking his own life. Two years later, Brogli is the unofficial mental health counselor for the rural community of Eagle Springs.

The Times article cited a study by LifeWay Research, which revealed 59 percent of Protestant pastors have counseled someone who was later diagnosed with a mental illness. Nearly a quarter of pastors say they, too, have experienced some kind of mental illness.

In November, LifeWay Research in partnership with Focus on the Family released the findings of a study on faith and mental illness. The study included surveys of senior Protestant pastors, Americans diagnosed with mental illness, and family members of people with mental illness. LifeWay Research also conducted in-depth interviews with experts on spirituality and mental health. See related story.

The study found most Protestant pastors seldom speak to their congregations about mental illness. And 22 percent of pastors admit to being reluctant to help those who suffer from mental illness because of the time commitment. Meanwhile, nearly two-thirds of family members and those with mental illness want their church to talk openly about mental illness.

“Because of the way we have ignored mental illness, we are hurting people,” Ed Stetzer, executive director of LifeWay Research, said. “We’ve sent the message that there’s something wrong with you if you’re a Christian with mental illness. The truth is there is something wrong with you — you’re ill and you need help. And the church can be part of the healing process.”

The challenge is many pastors and churches aren’t sure how to help those in need. The Winter issue of Facts & Trends, a LifeWay publication, tackled this issue offering insight from experts in the field as well as personal testimonies from those affected by mental illness.

In the cover story, Facts & Trends senior writer Bob Smietana unpacked the findings of LifeWay Research’s study on mental health. Author Amy Simpson discussed growing up watching her mother battle schizophrenia and the toll it took on their family. And pastor Art Greco shared his own journey through depression. An interview with Matthew Stanford, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Baylor University, revealed several ways churches can minister to those living with mental illness.

In his column, LifeWay President and CEO Thom S. Rainer addressed depression among pastors. And Executive Editor Ed Stetzer wrote about the stigma of mental illness and challenged church leaders to shape a new, more helpful approach to serving people with a mental disorder.

“There is an incredible need for churches to speak more about mental health,” Stetzer wrote. “Attitudes are certainly shifting. Churches are moving toward a greater level of awareness and engagement on issues of mental health.”

Mental illness affects a significant portion of Americans — 1 in 4 adults suffer some form of mental health disorder every year. Clergy are often the first point of contact when someone is going through times of stress, grief or depression.

For more information, see related SBC LIFE story, “SBC Entities, Mental Health Advisory Group Elevate Mental Health Ministry,” SBC LIFE is the journal of the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee.

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  • Staff/Lifeway Christian Resources