How to Respond Faithfully to the Mental Health Crisis
Here’s what I’m learning from the best pastors, business leaders, psychiatrists, counselors, and spiritual directors addressing America’s mental health crisis.
Notice and address anxiety first in yourself.
“You have to name it to tame it,” says Steve Cuss, author of Managing Leadership Anxiety and Australian-born pastor, speaker and writer. Cuss’ journey as a hospital chaplain sparked an enduring interest in helping people notice and address anxiety. He helps people reduce anxiety by noticing how it shows up in everyday life and controlling “reactivity,” or the impulse to overreact when our bodies are in a fight-or-flight state.
“Anxiety shrinks the power of the gospel because it presents a false gospel – one of self-reliance rather than reliance on God,” says Cuss. Anxiety may be universal, but he says learning to notice it in yourself and others is a first step toward becoming calm, aware, and present.
A growing number of pastors have latched onto the concept of “non-anxious presence” to combat anxiety. Christian leaders like John Mark Comer, Mark Sayers, and Todd Bolsinger have all latched onto the idea in sermons and books. The term was popularized amongst clergy by the late Edwin Friedmann, a rabbi, family systems theorist, and author of books like A Failure of Nerve and Generation to Generation.
One pathway to non-anxious presence is what the late Murray Bowen, the founder of family systems theory and professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University, called the “well-differentiated self.” The key is to strike the right balance between independence and connectedness, and thereby avoid becoming enmeshed with others or, conversely, emotionally cut off.
The well-differentiated leader, according to Friedman, is “someone who can be separate while still remaining connected, and therefore can maintain a modifying, non-anxious, and sometimes challenging presence.” The first step in addressing anxiety is found in taking responsibility for your own personal presence, and diffusing anxiety both internally as well as between others.
Be the first to bring up anxiety and mental health at church.
John Swinton, a Scottish theologian and minister specializing in faith and disability, believes the church offers a unique message from the broader culture. There’s a difference, he says, between inclusion and belonging. Inclusion, says Swinton, is just a technical requirement to not exclude, sustained by law and policy. “But to belong,” Swinton says, “you have to be missed. To belong you have to have a space where, when you’re not there, people long for you.” Churches offer this sense of family and connectedness that is often missed in secular culture.
As stigma about sharing mental health challenges decreases, especially among Millennials and Gen Z, the number of church-focused resources on faith and mental health increases. Mental Health Grace Alliance, Fresh Hope for Mental Health, Pathways to Promise, and Kay Warren’s The Gospel and Mental Health all offer churches practical congregational-focused resources. Sanctuary Mental Health Ministries offers a complete course for churches on topics such as mental health, stigma, recovery, companionship, caregiving, self-care and reflection.
“Everyone is struggling with anxiety,” says Trisha Taylor, a psychotherapist and co-author of The Leader’s Journey: Answering the Call to Personal and Congregational Transformation. Taylor and her ministry partner Jim Herrington help congregational leaders increase their emotional intelligence and navigate conflict. She also encourages all Christians to normalize conversations about mental health.
“First, let’s just talk about it. Second, we need to make a point to understand how emotions work. We need to learn from them rather than try to eliminate our negative emotions,” says Taylor, who believes that chronic anxiety is one major factor for why pastors leave their jobs. “Finally, anxiety is physiological. It’s our body’s natural response to stress. We often need to start by getting help for our bodies.”
For every 400 adults sitting in a congregation, on average 112 of them are struggling with chronic anxiety and 88 have symptoms of depressive disorder. For churches wondering how to restore community after the pandemic, here’s a place to start.
This article is the second of a three part series. The full essay was published by The Reformed Journal in November 2022. Next week I’ll publish the final article in the series.