Churches sharpen focus on mental-health issues, but stigma remains
Jun 29, 2014
By KEVIN BUMGARNER

BALTIMORE (FBW)—Some of the people who are helping equip Southern Baptist churches to respond to mental-health issues talked about their challenges during a breakout group as part of the SBC annual meeting.

Their conversation focused on these main themes: What is mental illness, and why do some people struggle with it? Is the Gospel all people need in these situations? What is the role of the church? Why does the stigma remain?
 
Brad Hambrick, pastor of counseling at Summit Church in the Raleigh-Durham area of North Carolina, looks for two primary distinctions when trying to distinguish between a mental illness and other emotional issues: The degree of impact and duration. Is it affecting work, relationships or other things? Is this something that time is not just going to heal? 
 
Ed Stetzer, president of LifeWay Research, thinks there are four possible defining factors: Duration, depth (“how much darkness is there?”), debilitation and danger.
 
Hambrick said conversations for Christians with mental illness can break down if those trying to help start to look for one single cause.
SBC Executive Committee President Frank Page, who wrote the book titled “Melissa” after his daughter committed suicide, agreed.
 
“It ultimately comes from a fallen world and fallen people, and it manifests itself in complicated ways,” Page said. “We must be very careful not to make trite statements that cover everything. As the church, we’ve got to work with compassion and caring.”
 
So, given such complexity, is the Gospel all anyone needs when they’re dealing with their own mental illness or trying to help others through a dark time?
 
“Yes, but how is the Gospel enough,” was Stetzer’s reply. “My response would be: If you have a broken leg, is the Gospel enough? Well, of course the Gospel is enough,” but that wouldn’t stop most people from seeking medical care as a way to facilitate recovery.
 
Given the limitations that most churches have when it comes to professional counseling services, panelists discussed the proper role for the church when it comes to ministering to those with mental illnesses.
 
“I do believe the church has a huge role, and often a neglected and overlooked role,” Page said. “The church needs to be very careful not to immediately refer everybody. And even when you do refer, stay with that person.”
 
Added Stetzer: “In the research we’re doing, I was pleasantly surprised at the fact that most of them felt pretty welcome at the church. I still do think there is a stigma attached to mental illness, especially in the church, (with people wondering), ‘Why can’t you just get over this and fly right?’ ”
 
Hambrick said one of the best ways to get past the stigma is for Christians to gain a better understanding of mental illness.
 
“We place a stigma on it so that we think it’s OK that we don’t understand it,” he added. “There is nothing that breaks a stigma like a friend, knowing somebody.”
 
Page said that transparency and honesty and a hesitancy to put everybody in a box is also important.
 
In 2013, the SBC approved two resolutions that dealt with giving more attention to mental-health ministry, and earlier this year Page named a 23-member advisory board comprised of local church leaders and mental health professionals to help him find better ways of communicating mental-health ministry needs to local churches.
 
Kentucky pastor Tony Rose of LaGrange Baptist Church will chair the Mental Health Advisory Council.

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