The crisis is alarming.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, close to 70 million individuals will live with a mental illness. That’s one in five adults (as well as one in five children and adolescents). The majority of individuals who live with a mental health illness will never receive any treatment; we simply do not have an adequate system to meet the enormity of the situation.
Nearly 40 percent of US children and two-thirds of adults have been exposed to at least one Adverse Child Experience (known as an ACE) – such as physical or emotional neglect or abuse, living with someone with a drug, alcohol or serious mental health problem, being exposed to violence or discrimination, experiencing poverty, the death of a parent, etc, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund. Approximately 1 in 5 children identify with more than two ACEs ,where large impacts are seen.
44 million Americans – or 17 percent of U.S. adults—report that they felt loneliness “a lot of the day yesterday.” Young adults under the age of 30 and those in lower-income households live with higher levels of daily loneliness, according to Gallup.
More than ever, neighbors are hungry for a space to belong, find support, and make meaning out of complex dynamics of our time. We as faith communities are uniquely positioned to lead in addressing this mental health crisis. We know restoration and resurrection, hope and love. This is what we do. It is our bread and butter. It is our reason for being. It is what God has given us to offer to a hurting world, one neighborhood at a time.
We are called to be a beloved community—and that’s exactly what our neighbors need. Research shows that meaningful, lasting social support and connection is the most powerful protection against being overwhelmed by stress and trauma. People who have experienced trauma want to be “truly heard and seen by the people around us, feeling like we are held in someone else’s mind and heart” (UCC MHN, 2018). When communities of faith are able to develop and maintain “positive social relationships, we can play a significant role in supporting people with mental illness or trauma on their journeys to recovery” (H.E. Butt Foundation), as social stigma is the second most common reason people report for not accessing mental health care (Lewis Center). Fast Fact: According to a study conducted by Springtide Research Institute, 70 percent of young people currently connected to a spiritual or religious community report having ‘discovered a satisfying life purpose’ as compared to 55% of those who used to be connected to such a community.
Trauma is part of our story, in the historical and social reality behind the Hebrew Bible, according to Paul Cho, a professor of Hebrew Bible in an interview with the Lewis Center for Church Leadership. “Recognizing that our pain and sufferings were also experienced by the people in Scripture makes it more proximate to our lives and our existence… The book of Job is a gift not only to the church, but to a world that knows suffering and oppression… The Word of God does not shy away from complexity,” Cho says. As United Methodists, we believe that we are all moving onto perfection. Our theology of grace inspires self-compassion. The only way we can love God and love one another is to be kind and gentle with ourselves. If an individual is not healthy, the care and compassion they provide for others will not be sustainable.
Our faith practices can provide a sources of peace, increasing mindfulness and re-establishing a sense of meaning for people navigating seasons of instability and uncertainty. Practices include prayer, meditation, contemplation, and sacred music. Fast fact: According to a study conducted by Springtide Research Institute, 57 percent of all young people and 73 percent of religious young people agree their religious of spiritual practices positively impact their mental health.
Clergy and church staff are frontline mental health workers. Many people turn to clergy for support before they turn to mental health professionals, especially in communities of color. According to National Survey of Religious Workers, 72 percent of clergy have been approached for assistance with a mental illness; 25 percent of all people in the US seeking professional care for a mental illness sought help first from a clergy person.
“Data indicates that the people seeking assistance are not necessarily associated with the church. They may not even believe in God, ” says Dr. Matthew Stanford in an interview with the Lewis Center for Church Leadership (2021). Anyone in the general population struggling with these problems is more likely to engage a clergy first. “When surveying pastors, the vast majority, 70 to 80 percent, say they don’t feel adequately trained to recognize a mental health condition in a congregant. Ninety percent of pastors provide some type of pastoral counseling, but then less than 10 percent ever make a referral. And less than a quarter of congregations ever develop any kind of structured approach to caring for or serving individuals with mental health problems. A large number of people are coming, but few are being served adequately. So it is a real opportunity to serve people and help them get care. But it’s also an incredible ministry and evangelistic opportunity” (Stanford, 2021).
Churches are a space where we can build the capacity for personal and communal resilience. “Resilience develops in healthy communities where people can have conversations, where they can agree and disagree, and talk with people who are like and unlike them. A loving community where members respect each other will make congregants healthy and resilient,” says Paul Cho (2021). This contributes to the healing of traumatized individuals, and helps them reconnect with a welcoming society. “This can be especially effective when they collaborate with mental health providers and other agencies who deliver evidence-based and clinically necessary treatment and supports,” according to the H.E. Butt Foundation. Congregational activities that support resilience include 1) reducing the source of stress by meeting physical needs, teachings about forgiveness, and classes on conflict management, anger management, and marriage counseling 2) strengthening core life skills by offering financial literacy and management skills, job skills training, and 3) supporting responsive relationships through mentorship programs, youth programs, support groups, etc (Trauma Informed MD, 2023).
We are geographically located in the heart of communities – urban, suburban, and rural. In Tennessee, with a growing population of nearing seven million, more than 85 percent of people affiliate with one of the state’s 11,500 houses of faith, according to the State of Tennessee. As Cnanna and McGrew share, “Congregations in America are the most prevalent and trusted community organization. These hubs of social concern and pro-social human nuclei are woven like a thick tapestry all over America. Given the high level of religious involvement of Americans, and the country’s very limited welfare program, it is natural for faith communities to extend their involvement in local social service provision as a manifestation of members’ faith.” Congregational assets include community trust, contribution to qualify of life, funding stream, located in the heart of the community, maintained physical space, pro-social perspective, endurance and credibility, access to potential volunteers.