By Joe Zaccaria, Executive Director – Mental Health Coach & Chaplain
One thing is certain – when this pandemic is over in whatever form that looks like, a huge number of people will be forever impacted in a very bad way, unless as a society we can get over our biases, fears, and stop becoming experts at establishing roadblocks. A great number of people are heading quickly towards a mental health cliff. The good news is that our mental health experts and our churches can mobilize to become a safety net, if we can put the needs of others ahead of our own.
I know we are all sick of hearing about the COVID Pandemic. But for many, many people, this pandemic has made them sicker than they have ever been in their lives. Still many more have died. I‘m not talking about sickness and death from COVID-19. I’m talking about the vast numbers of people whose struggle with mental illness have either become acute, or who have died from their illness – through suicide. We won’t know the actual numbers that have been impacted in this way during the pandemic for some time, while some numbers may be hard to link and quantify forever.
For years there has been a great debate by licensed professionals (counselors, psychologists, psychiatrists, and others) on what to do with the topic of faith or in counseling people of faith. On the church side, old-school thinking did not allow for any acknowledgement that sometimes people of faith must do more than read their Bibles and pray. There is a place for medicine, and sometimes mental illness requires medications and/or tools that licensed professionals can bring to the table.
“Churches Without Broken People Are Broken Churches” – Ed Stetzer
Licensed professionals need to come to grips with the shortage of mental health professionals today. Most especially here in Whatcom County. If the professionals and the churches worked together, hurting people could realize the help they need, want, and are not getting today. While there is a definite place for the licensed professional to help someone investigate their past, or tools to move out of old ways of doing things, not everyone needs or can afford this level of professional care.
Sometimes the people hurting don’t need to look in the rear-view mirror for months and months. For some, they need someone with patience to listen, when others don’t have time for them. For others, they need coaching. A mental health coach or life coach that is trained to see where folks are stuck and help get them unstuck. Often this appears in the form of a listening ear, someone to walk alongside them, asking them the right questions, or goal setting and the coach keeping them accountable to the goals they set. Even people that suffer from severe mental illness enjoy someone that will give them time, as often due to their illness, other people tend to avoid them. In these cases, a hybrid approach is effective, as the licensed professional helps with the things they are well-qualified to address, while the mental health coach encourages and supports their efforts. Providing that additional relationship at no cost to the hurting person.
Churches need to realize that the statistics say a hurting person will first reach out to a pastor, priest, or Rabbi for help. Is the church prepared to be “first responders” to crises that involve mental health?
Edward John Stetzer, Ph.D. is an author, speaker, researcher, and a pastor. Over the years he has heard people talk about a “friendly church”. Sometimes people talk about a “caring church”. But Stetzer points out that Galatians 6:2 (NIV) admonishes us to “Carry one another’s burden…” Are we a “Carrying church”?
Churches are much life families. They don’t know how to talk about mental health. Are we just a superficial “friendly church”? Or are we a “Caring and Carrying Community”? We are called to be a supporting community. In being a supportive community, we must become a community of awareness. The awareness that people in our community can struggle with mental health. We can be a partner in the community by engaging mental health professionals and partnering with them to serve people together. Normalizing doesn’t happen by the pastor just having a list of resources that he can give people occasionally. That is simply an awareness gap between the pastor and the congregation. The message must be persistent and everywhere from the weekly bulletin to pre-service slides, to the website, and more.
“Sermons Break Stigmas” – Ed Stetzer, PH.D.
Regular messages from the pastor help normalizing getting help and giving permission for them to do so without stigma or questioning of faith. Some pastors will ask that in such a time as this with all the division we have, with the few resources and time we have, do we really need to take this on now? The simple answer is “YES”! If you are wondering what your church will look like post-pandemic, take this blog post as a “clue”. Yes, you pastors have spent countless hours providing pastoral counseling to untold numbers of people. How can you possible do even more? The simple answer is this is not about you doing anything. Yes, you have a big role in communicating often and normalizing help, but a mental health coach, small groups, home groups, encouragers, and some solid outside partnerships are all that is required.
“The church’s role is to relieve suffering, reveal Christ, and restore lives” – Dr. Matt Stanford
The mental health coach meets with people to “triage” the immediate needs, then guides those needs down an established path with the resources your church has in place. For some, they need a listener, encourager, coach, and accountability check in. Others may require more substantial help that is provided from partners on the path. Moving the church beyond the whispering, taboos, silence, and stigma. We see cases of an illness and we treat it as such, just like people dealing with any other illness. We are an essential voice to this conversation. Choose to be the church you would want to be in if you had mental illness.
“Offer a supportive care structure, help people spiritually, help them understand where God is in the situation, and help them connect to Him.”
– Dr. Matt Stanford