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Pastors have congregational and, for some, personal experience with mental illness

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NASHVILLE (BP) — Most pastors have seen mental illness in their pews, while some have seen it in themselves.

A Lifeway Research study explores U.S. Protestant pastors’ experiences with mental illness and how well their churches are equipped to respond to those who need help.

A majority of pastors (54%) say in the churches where they have served on staff, they have known at least one church member who has been diagnosed with a severe mental illness such as clinical depression, bipolar or schizophrenia. Most of those pastors had experience with a small number of members: 18% say 1-2 and another 18% say 3-5. Fewer pastors say they’ve known 6-10 (8%), 11-20 (5%) or more than 20 (6%). Around a third (34%) say none of their church members have been diagnosed with a severe mental illness, while 12% don’t know.

“There is a healthy generational shift occurring as younger and middle-aged pastors are much more likely to have encountered people in church with severe mental illness than the oldest pastors,” said Scott McConnell, executive director of Lifeway Research. “However, it is not clear whether the presence of those with difficult mental illnesses is increasing among church members or if they have simply felt more comfortable sharing their diagnosis with younger pastors.”

Pastors 65 and older (46%) and those with no college degree (52%) are more likely to say they haven’t known any church members with a severe mental illness.

Twenty-six percent of U.S. Protestant pastors say they have personally struggled with some type of mental illness, including 17% who say it was diagnosed and 9% who say they experienced it but were never diagnosed. Three-quarters (74%) say they’ve never dealt with a mental illness.

Compared to a 2014 Lifeway Research study, a similar number of pastors today say they have endured mental illness themselves (26% v. 23%). More pastors now, however, say they have been diagnosed (17% v. 12%).

“During the COVID-19 pandemic many Americans have faced challenges to their mental health,” said McConnell. “More pastors today are seeking professional help as evidenced by more having been diagnosed with mental illness. Younger pastors are the most likely to say they have endured mental illness.”

Pastors under 45 (37%) are most likely to say they have struggled with some form of mental illness.

Church help

Churchgoers may not hear about mental illness frequently from the pulpit, but most churches will hear about the subject at least once a year from their pastor.

Six in 10 U.S. Protestant pastors say they speak to their churches about acute or chronic mental illness in sermons or large group messages at least once a year, including 17% who bring up the subject about once a year. For more than 2 in 5 pastors, the issue comes up multiple times a year, with 30% saying they talk about it several times a year, 9% saying about once a month and 4% saying several times a month.

Other pastors cover the topic much less frequently, with 26% saying they rarely bring it up and 11% saying they never talk about it. Another 3% aren’t sure.

Pastors are more likely to broach the subject in a large group setting today than 2014, when 49% said they rarely or never spoke about it. Eight years ago, 33% mentioned the issue several times a year or more compared to 43% today.

“While the typical pastor hasn’t experienced mental illness themselves, they are proactively teaching about this need and feel a responsibility to help,” said McConnell. “While preaching on mental illness is the norm and even more pastors feel their church is responsible to help the mentally ill, still 37% of pastors rarely or never bring it up from the pulpit.”

Beyond talking about it from the pulpit, 9 in 10 U.S. Protestant pastors (89%) say local churches have a responsibility to provide resources and support for individuals with mental illness and their families. Few pastors (10%) disagree.

When asked about specific types of care their churches provide for those suffering from mental illness or their families, more than 4 in 5 pastors say they offer something. Almost 7 in 10 (68%) say their church maintains a list of experts to whom they can refer people. Two in 5 (40%) have a plan for supporting families of those with mental illness. Around a quarter say they provide training for encouraging people with mental illness (26%), offer programs like Celebrate Recovery (26%) or offer topical seminars on depression or anxiety (23%). Close to 1 in 5 provide training for leaders to identify symptoms of mental illness (20%), host groups in their community that help those with mental illness (20%) or have a counselor on staff skilled in mental illness (18%). Another 7% say they provide another resource.

“In the years between studies, more churches have developed plans for supporting families of those with mental illness. A few more are offering training for leaders to identify symptoms of mental illness and hosting groups such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness,” said McConnell. “The most common and earliest way for a church to care for someone with mental illness is to have a list of mental health experts to refer people to. Yet almost a third of churches don’t have such a list.”

Younger pastors, age 18-44, (9%) are the least likely to say they don’t provide any of the potential resources. Pastors at churches with fewer than 50 in attendance (24%) are the most likely.

As pastors are most likely to say they have a referral list at their church, most say they’re prepared to identify when someone needs to be referred to an expert. Almost 9 in 10 pastors (86%) agree they feel equipped to identify when a person is dealing with acute or chronic mental illness that may require a referral to a medical professional, with 34% strongly agreeing. Few (12%) don’t feel equipped, and 1% aren’t sure.

The percentage of pastors who feel equipped is up slightly from 2014 when 81% said they felt capable of making the identification and referral.