Churches might not offer help for families with mental health problems


2011-06-22 17:53

A fascinating and first-of-its-kind study sponsored by Baylor University looks at how mental illness of a family member influences an individual's relationship with the church. The study appears on-line in the journal Mental Health, Religion and Culture, and reveals that mental illness within a family frequently destroys the family’s connection to its church.

This is a sad discovery in light of the fact that church communities, in principle and in practice, ought to be a source of support in times of stress. In our rapidly shifting, hyper-mobile society, one would have hoped that faith communities would be one of the last strongholds for stability, friendship, charity and practical help in times of adversity. As a matter of fact, some individuals are so starved for a sense of community that they often join dubious organizations and cults just to satisfy the need for security and belonging.

The Baylor University highlights that (presumably) traditional church communities do not fulfill the needs of congregants whose families are stressed by mental illness. The study shows that families with a member who has mental illness would like their congregation to provide assistance with those issues. However, the rest of the church community seemed to overlook their need entirely. In fact, the study found that while help with depression and mental illness was the second priority of families with mental illness, it ranked 42nd on the list of requests from families that did not have a family member with mental illness.

While the ranking itself simply shows that families who are not experiencing mental illness in a family member might simply be oblivious to the unique needs of such families, they also imply that the help is not forthcoming when needed. According to study co-author Dr. Matthew Stanford, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Baylor, families with mental illness reported twice as many problems and tended to ask for assistance with more immediate or crisis needs compared to other families. He adds that “the data give the impression that mental illness, while prevalent within a congregation, is also nearly invisible."

Of course, the finding might highlight not anything fundamentally wrong with the church organization itself, but with the prevalent attitude of shame towards mental illness in general. While having a physical disability or illness is often viewed with solicitude, mental health challenges might still be seen as a lack of will. Perhaps such an outlook is particularly prevalent within traditional church organizations, where “bad” behavior has historically been associated with sinfulness and sloth.

The Baylor study surveyed 6,000 participants in 24 churches representing four Protestant denominations, so it is important to note the demographic limitations of the research. Would results have changed if other Christian denominations, and other faith traditions altogether, were included?