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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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What we can do

It hit me hardest when the counselor told my wife and I that we would need a psychiatrist’s help for our child. Can’t we talk just a little longer? What did I do wrong? Should we tell family, friends and neighbors? What is my child thinking? How will this impact her self-confidence, options for school and career, and a future family of her own? 

Mental illnesses, mental disorders, and suicidal thoughts or actions are uncomfortable discussion topics for congregations and society. We often fear (and distance ourselves from) things we don’t understand. Sometimes we even blame those for whom we should care.

As a pastor for 30 years and the father of a child with mental illness for the past 12, I’ve learned more than I ever imagined about mental illness and suicide. It’s opened my eyes to a whole new area of ministry with God’s people.

Here are ways to create an atmosphere of acceptance in your congregation for anyone suffering from any illness:

• In sermons and conversations, pastors can share positive stories about how Jesus cared for, accepted and loved people struggling with mental illness or disorders. 

• As leaders, emphasize that mental illnesses and disorders are serious but treatable medical conditions. Talk about positive outcomes for people who have managed their mental illness — but only when you have the permission of the person with the illness.

• Become familiar with mental health resources in your community. Be aware that medical insurance drives the availability of treatment options and family member support. Be ready for the reality that in some regions, resources for professional help may be limited.

Remember that regardless of insurance status, hospital emergency departments are always available for serious mental health events and any indication of suicidal thoughts or actions. 

• Learn from the mental health community about support groups in your area for individuals and families dealing with mental health issues. Post or list these resources on bulletin boards and online. 

• Let your congregation and community know you are there to help.

• Be attuned to stories you hear in the congregation or community that might hint at mental illness. Often this is a secret, stigmatized disease that brings shame to the mentally ill. Train youth leaders and confirmation and Sunday school teachers to watch for signs of mental illness and violence.

• Create and maintain a private and safe space for people to talk.

• Plan educational events around Mental Health Month (May), Suicide Prevention Month (September) or Mental Illness Awareness Week (Oct. 6-12). 

• Don’t be afraid to let people with mental illness serve as a resource. On occasion they are willing to share their experiences. This can be a transformative moment for a congregation.

• If you hear any hint of a suicide threat, act immediately. Seek outside help if needed. No threat should be taken lightly. 

I take high blood pressure medicine to manage my disease. My child takes medicine to manage her disorder. God loves us both.


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